The pastness of the past (1)

I didn’t write my “Capitano Sangue” post as well as I might have, and maybe some things weren’t clear. I especially should stress that I’m not objecting to art from the past, including classical music from the past. This year I think I’ve read six Trollope novels, just for instance (the first four from the Barchester series, and the first two Pallisers.) And I’ve listened with pure happiness to two Verdi reissues from the LambertoGardelli series that came out on Philips in the ’70s , masnadieri (Carlo Bergonzi is such a joy to hear) and La battaglia di Legnano. Plus I’ve been listening intensely to Toscanini recordings of standard classical repertoire; more on that in another post.

But you couldn’t possibly miss that Trollope lived long ago. All the particulars of 19th century courtship and marriage, one of his big subjects — it’s very far from how things are now. But of course that’s one of the reasons I read him. It’s intriguing to go to a different place, especially one with enough connections to our time that we can savor the differences. (His prose is one of those differences; nobody writes like that now, and nobody should.)

With Verdi, I know I’m in the past, too, but that might be for personal reasons. If you see Rigoletto at the Met, I don’t think that feels like the past, or at least it doesn’t to me. It feels like going to the opera, as we know that activity today. But to me., Verdi comes from another era in part because I’ve studied him so much, and also studied the history and culture of 19th century Italian opera. Among much else, I love the musical forms that opera composers used back then, and especially the sweeping cabalettas that end almost every scene.

For those who don’t know this music, almost every scene comes to rest in the middle with a slow piece of music, and then ends with something that’s usually fast, with a simple melody and propulsive rhythm, which is supposed to end the scene in a burst of excitement. This has to be one of the most commercial musical forms ever devised. The idea is to leave the audience cheering. And the simple melody is always repeated, which serves many purposes. The repeat could make the audience happy. If they like the tune, they get to hear it twice. And, since the operas tended to be written and rehearsed in a hurry, repeats made everybody’s work easier. If a lot of music was repeated, the composer could write less, and the singers and orchestra had less to learn. Between the two statements of the melody, and after the second one, you’d typically hear noisy music.

That helped keep the excitement going, and helped bring it to some wild height of madness after the second statement of the melody had finished. But all this isn’t as simple as it sounds. Simple music is in some ways harder to write than complicated music. If you write a fugue in 19 voices, everybody knows you’re very serious, and often people (especially connoisseurs) will nod their heads in solemn approval, even if the results aren’t all that interesting. But if you write a tune designed to knock an audience absolutely dead, everybody knows pretty quickly whether you’ve succeeded or failed, and if you’ve failed, they just won’t cheer.

So here’s something I really love about this cabaletta form. (The fast piece at the end of each scene is called a “cabaletta,” except in the case of large ensembles, typically found at the end of the first or second act, when the cabaletta is called a “stretta.” See how intense a classical music nerd I can be?) As the 19th century winds on, the form starts to degenerate.

Early on, in Bellini’s operas, cabalettas seem to make sense. The repeats seem motivated. Between the verses, the singers keep singing, often with the help of a chorus. They keep saying whatever got them excited enough to sing the cabaletta in the first place, which then makes us in the audience feel there’s a reason to sing the whole thing again. But in Verdi’s time, cabalettas started to seem a bit old. Eventually Verdi just about stopped writing them. They’d passed their use-by date. When they do crop up, as they do all through the two operas I’ve been listening to, they sound a little pro forma, put into the opera because they’re supposed to be there, but not necessarily because anyone (Verdi included) really believed in them. The tunes aren’t so good; that’s one giveaway. But an even stronger giveaway is what happens between the verses. You start getting music written only for the orchestra, which leaves the singer stamping around all alone on stage, then turning once more to the audience to sing the melody a second time, for no apparent reason.

So here’s why I’m a real 19th century opera junkie. In some ways, I love the unmotivated cabaletta repeats better than the ones that make sense. This is what happens when you fall in love with a genre, quite apart from the pieces that comprise it. I feel that way about other things — ’50s science fiction films, for instance, and doowop songs. Somebody might say, “That’s the stupidest monster I’ve ever seen.” (Talking, maybe about the giant locusts that climb up Chicago buildings in The Beginning of the End.  They filmed the scene by putting real locusts down on a photo of a Chicago building. Sometimes the locusts walk right off the building into the air around it.) I say, “I love the stupidity.” Or else someone complains that doowop ballads almost all have the same chord progression, the immortal I – VI — IV or II) – V. I say, “I love that chord progression,” and it gives me a tingle even in a really bad song. (I think it tells a little story: Comfort gives way to risk and excitement, with a knot in the pit of your stomach; then there’s reassurance, and finally resolution.) So in bel canto opera, and the Verdi operas that followed, I love the cabalettas. Which also help me remember that the operas were written a long time ago. 

But now let’s get away from my obsessions, and rejoin the classical music mainstream. There, music from the past is the norm, and it tends to lose its pastness. Which in one way makes sense, because the music still is with us, right here in the present. But in another way it makes no sense, because the style and content of the music comes from the past. I think we should notice that, just as we notice that Trollope’s marriages come from the past (not to mention the style of his writing). But I think we don’t, often enough, because we’re not conditioned to question classical masterworks. We tend to accept them unquestioningly, and when we talk about their history, we do it in scholarly terms, so the history becomes a distant object of contemplation, and not a reality that might hit us square in the face during a performance.


Footnote to this: the most fully 19th century trait (for me, anyway) in I masnadieri is the soprano role, which was written for Jenny Lind (pictured above), a soprano generally thought to have more pipes than guts (or, more sympathetically, an incomparable technique, but not much sense of theater). Verdi liked her, apparently, but wrote her a remarkably empty part, full of embellishments. The music, JulienBudden says in his three-volume study of Verdi, is “tinsel-like”; I’d call it the frilliest soprano role Verdi ever wrote, and to me it’s really almost a shock after Verdi’s other sopranos, who tend to be women with guts, and sometimes even outright demons like Lady Macbeth, Abigaille in Nabucco, or Odabella in Attila.

The frills end up making a kind of sense, because this piece has a climax that’s over the top even for Italian opera. The tenor, who’s an outlaw, kills the soprano (his beloved), to save her from sharing his immoral life. How appropriate, then, for the soprano to be all frilly (and how even more fitting it would have been if Verdi had written music for the tenor that suggested his unease, as he did with the distantly similar title role in Ernani; I masnadieri isn’t one of Verdi’s more convincing operas). But the frills also place the piece squarely in the 19th century. I don’t think I’ve ever met, in my 20th and 21st century life, a woman as frilly as this one, and I’m not sure I could have, unless I visited the deep South during the ’50s. Trollope might have recognized her, though. And to judge from that picture of Jenny Lind, she must have fit the singer perfectly.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    I like, very much, the idea that in listening to common practice period classical music, we ought to be struck by its pastness, but are not. We are, for instance, I think, generally when listening to “early music,” at least in part because it often has a frame around it that suggests anachronism. What I don’t really know yet is why we don’t hear 18th and 19th c. music as “past” nor how we might go about doing so. Is it really just that we are taught not to question it? We are not taught to question Dufay, but there’s no hearing that as contemporary, right? Something like this has happened with jazz, too, I think: we tend to hear pre-bop forms as anachronistic, but not bop/post bop; though certain items from the 70s certainly sound dated, like the Mahavishnu Ork, for instance. How does this relate?

    Actually, though, I also wonder if all those people out there who love rock/pop/hip hop/country don’t hear classical (and jazz?) as anachronistic.

    Very interesting, Gabriel.

    Off the top of my head…maybe we hear bebop as contemporary (even though it’s, what, 60 years old?), because some sort of era dawned in jazz when bebop started, and still continues. That’s an imprecise notion, I know, and it certainly raises the question of how jazz could be in one era, and pop music in another (since 1947-era pop wouldn’t sound contemporary at all). Still, it seems pretty clear to me that eras do have some kind of existance. To cite a couple of examples I’ve used in the past, westerns (in the movies) seemed vital and contemporary for several decades, but are comparatively rare now. And educated people (which would have meant men) in the west for hundreds of years were expected to know Latin and Greek. That era has long been over, but it was still lingering around 1950, since writers then might leave Latin and even Greek quotations untranslated in their books.

    Classical music doesn’t feel like it comes from the past — I’m talking about the old pieces, of course — for at least a couple of reasons. First, the performing style used for these pieces has changed over the decades. So there really is something contemporary about their sound, when we hear them performed. Some older performances — with a lot of tempo changes no one would make today, for instance — do really sound old today. The romantic Bach of the 1930s, with a piano used as a continuo instrument — that sounds ancient.

    That’s one reason. Another might be that the very concept of classical music is, more or less by definition, contemporary. That is, you can’t define something as classical unless you have something contemporary to contrast it with. (Thus contemporary classical music is something of a contradiction in terms, which is, pretty much, the way the classical music world has behaved for quite a long time.) So any classical music performance would be contemporary, because its classicalness is a contemporary construction.

    But that then leads to a contradiction, because in so many ways the music does things (in its purely musical unfolding) and expresses things (in its content) that come from the past. The more vivid those features of the music become, the more the music feels like it comes from the past. And the more it feels like it comes from the past, the less classical it seems! I’m sure some people will think that I’m playing with a silly (and basically meaningless) paradox when I say this, but not so.

    Take, for instance, the percussion scoring in bel canto opera. In excited moments, the timpani, bass drum, and cymbals often bang and crash on every beat. In the 19th century, this must have sounded really noisy, because orchestras were small, and Italian percussion players must have been excitable. We can move on from this, and generalize that physical verve is a very basic feature of these operas, and that the noisy percussion was one way that verve made itself felt.
    But physical verve isn’t a classical quality, and so the percussion scoring is downplayed in modern performances. It’s blended into the kind of suave orchestral sound that wasn’t even conceivable when these operas were new. (The instruments they used didn’t blend like that, even if the orchestras had been good enough — and had enough rehearsal time — to achieve that sound.)

    So here we see exactly the paradox I’m talking about, in very concrete form. A clear and really quite decisive feature of 19th century Italian opera scores is at least somewhat suppressed, because it contradicts our notions of what classical music should be.

    Making all our classical masterpieces sound like they come from the past, then, is an essential step in making them fresh again, by liberating them from all their classical overlay.

    Robert Fink has a fabulous paper in which he just about impales conventional classical-music thinking on this contradiction: “Rigoroso (♪ = 126)”: “The Rite of Spring” and the Forging of a Modernist Performing Style.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 52, No. 2. (Summer, 1999), pp. 299-362.

    Though it’s also possible to have performances of classical pieces that sound completely contemporary, without being classical. That can’t be done, I suspect, wilth all pieces. But it can certainly be done with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, as Glenn Gould showed. And now Simone Dinnerstein has done it in her absolutely wonderful new Goldberg recording, which sounds like many things, but not much like Baroque music. Instead, Dinnerstein brought all the music she knows and loves into the piece, producing as honest, deeply felt, convincing, and undistorted performance of the piece as you’ll ever hear. This is more than a theory on my part, by the way, about her bringing all the music she loves into the performance. I formed that idea after hearing the recording, and then had a chance to ask her about it. Turns out she thought of her performance in much the same way, which certainly helped me understand why I loved it so much. Her thoughts and mine wee, at least on this point, aligned. (I’m not making any claims that we’d agree about other things.) .

  2. ariel says

    There is certainly a lot of mumbo -jumbo going on which adds up to nothing .

    Pointless little mental

    exercises on what was,what could be and on and on while missing the most signficent aspect of this

    topic .

    Ariel, I’d love to know what your objections actually are. Would you tell me what you think the most significant aspect of this topic is, the aspect you think I missed?

  3. ariel says

    First throw out the terms ie. classical romantic etc.

    and use only “music”.No one alive has any idea how music sounded to Bach ,Mozart etc. and their audiences ,reading of it means very little except

    how the audience reacted to

    the sounds of the time.

    Pitch varied greatly and

    has a profound effect on

    what one hears ,espeially

    clarity of notes .From

    338 to 440 is a world of difference ,especially in opera ,when some ditzy

    soprano is aiming for the high “e” Gould grunting at the piano is just that

    it may be brilliant to some but it ain’t Bach

    as Bach wrote it.Dinnertein may play her Bach until doomsday

    but it will never be Bach

    it will be Dinnerstein

    playing her rendition of Bach .Whatever goes on in the concert hall to-day

    is in a sense bogus unles

    we play contemporary music at our pitch and

    our understanding of tempo,and nuance of sound.This is where painting as an art has us beat -we must come to art on its terms not ours.

    Thanks, Ariel! I agree with you. Or mostly I agree.
    But don’t you also think there’s a middle ground — lots of middle ground, in fact — between doing exactly what they did in the past, and doing it completely our way? (Not that they did it only one way in the past, for that matter.)

    You don’t think we can learn anything from what we know they did in the past? Nobody with any sense would claim we can reproduce exactly what they did. Pitch is the least of it, if you ask me. We can play at their pitch. (We’d have a wide choice, actually, since pitch varied from city to city.) What’s hardest to do is to reproduce the sound and feeling they would have gotten. We just don’t live the way they do. So to play Lully with the feeling they had at Versailles, we’d probably have to piss and shit behind the stairs, the way they did. Not that I’m saying we should do that! I’m just agreeing with you, in the strongest possible terms, that we can’t reproduce what they did.

    But still that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from it. What would you yourself do with those percussion parts in Italian opera? Or with da capo arias? Are you really saying that the ways those things were performed when the music was new has absolutely nothing to teach us? That’s a very, very, very strong statement. The part I don’t agree with, in what you wrote, is that nobody alive has any idea at all, none at all, of how the music sounded. We do know plenty of things. We know, for instance, that each violinist in many German orchestras in the 18th century improvised ornaments independently. That tells us something about the sound — not everything, but something. And things like that can give us ideas about things to do today, as long as we don’t make the silly mistake of thinking we’re doing exactly what they did in the past.

  4. ariel says

    You are discerning ,but I believe you write at times just to provoke .May I suggest that we learn from the past in what they didn’t do.Pitch i believe

    is very important ,just go to the cookie cutter string department at Julliard (by that I mean they all sound alike and vibrate until your back teeth get on edge ,and they bore equally ) have a violin player do a mozart work at a pitch of 338 440 444 and notice the difference in the sound and how the approach to playing changes. ad inferior

    gut strings ,minimum vibrato as taught by papa

    Mozart and you have a totally different world

    of violin playing and sound

    production .I have heard

    most from Parlow (?!) to the latest hotshot and the

    difference is quite astonishing as to sound

    and approach to the art .

    What we have gained in speed we have lost in artistry .You cannot reproduce the sounds of the past nor the temperment for we all belong to our own times .and must ,if only to be true to ourselves -but we can steal a little

    bit here and there from the past if it works to-day . You know fiddle players to-day play Kreisler a lot to show their “human” side but if

    Kreisler showed up to-day unknown and playing as he did

    every critic would bring him down as second rate .

    As for Versailles what went on back stairs was no different than what goes on stage at some of opera houses I have attended .You didn’t really go to hear Lucia

    did you ? tell me it ain’t so .

    You go, Ariel! People should listen to you.

    I did go to hear Lucia. Mostly out of interest in how the Met is doing. Last year’s opening was a real occasion in New York, putting the Met on the map in a way that I haven’t seen happen to other classical music institutions.

    But if you’re going to say that’s a pissy reason (oops! we’re in Versailles again!) for going to hear music, I don’t disagree. Art matters more. And I’m really torn that way. I have a public presence as a gadfly in this field, and a private presence as an artist. I know which matters more.

    At least you can see, from my reaction to Lucia, what a classical music geek I am at heart. There are some pieces (a lot of them operas) that I know just about by heart, and when I go to a performance, I could probably give commentary on just about every moment. Maybe that’s a burden!

    And about saying things to provoke. People often think this of me, and in fact I’ve gotten admiring e-mail from people who know me, saying “You’re the provocateur this field needs.” Translation: we’re never going to do anything you say, but thanks for saying it. This always makes me just a little sick. I really do mean everything I say; I mean it to be taken at face value. Are my words so shocking that no one can quite believe I mean them? Another source for personal sorrow, if that’s true.