On ‘musicality’

By May 14, 2015History, Music, Society

It seems to be the case that concert organisers these days are determined, above all else, to fill the concert hall, and that appeared to be the case with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s recent Tchaikovsky/Rimsky-Korsakov offering. The Tchaikovsky was the Piano Concerto No.1 in B Minor, while Rimsky was there with his Scheherazade symphonic suite. The hall was full, the band was in excellent form, and the audience responded to the virtuosity of the young soloist, Vietnamese Australian Hoang Pham.

It was the fifth or sixth time I had heard the Tchaikovsky concerto live, and I have a few recorded versions. The truth is that I don’t really like it, and never have liked it, and though Hoang Pham had played the difficult work admirably, I finished feeling that I never would like it, no matter who played it.

And being prodded after the concert by my wife to explain why, I have had a go. Tastes in music, as in anything else, are not for argument, really. Yet I can point to aspects of the work that explain, at least to me, my feelings. To begin, the pianist has a tremendous amount of work to do, and a lot of it is difficult, and loud. The orchestra is often loud too. The first movement, which is the home of much of the loudness, is more than half of the whole concerto. Themes are introduced, and then neglected, like the big theme that opens the work. By the time you get to the sweet and tranquil second movement I am in great need of some peace and quiet.

Third, the work does not draw me in (more of that later). It is as though I am outside, looking in at it, rather than being picked up and taken into the musical world that the composer has prepared for me. It is all surface and show (and noise). Yes, it has moments of great beauty, and Tchaikovsky was never short of a melody, but for me the work does not go anywhere. I can put up with the banging and wait for the lovely episodes, but at the end I feel that there has not been enough musical food for my sustenance. There is too much virtuosity and too little real musicality.

Rimsky-Korsakov would commonly be placed in the second rank of composers, with Tchaikovsky in the front, but with these two works, in my opinion, that placement would be reversed. Scheherazade is a splendid orchestral piece. You don’t really have know anything about the Arabian fable which is its inspiration. The music is enough, wild, romantic, exuberant, haunting, wistful and dramatic. It has four movements, and has some claim to be a symphony of sorts, but even that doesn’t matter.

I’ve written about the piece before, as I have about Tchaikovsky, and the CSO performance was a brilliant one. This is music that took me into its world. Yes, I know it well, and know what is about to happen in every bar. I still get a thrill from some of the harmonies, the shifts, and the returns. Rimsky-Korsakov used leit motifs and I don’t care if they refer to the sea, or to the storyteller or to the sultan: they are the kind of beautifully organised musical repetition that gets you in. The work is a wonderful whole, and when it finishes you’re not sure whether to cheer, laugh or to cry. It is full of musicality.

What does that term mean? Dictionaries are not much help. A paragraph I came across said that searching for it is almost pointless: [A]t the risk of being a obscure, a strong argument can be made that what is most “music” is precisely what most evades verbal definition — that the essence of “musicality” is the thing which most refuses to be pinned down in words. By virtue of that fact alone, it is most what is worthy of being irreducibly called “music”. You can’t catch the movement in the stream as it flows by, you will be left with a handful of water, not the flow. I recognise that this will not help those who want an easy, memorable definition.

One way in is to look for melodiousness and harmony, a feeling of rightness, of appropriateness. Schubert has it in spades. So does Mozart. All great composers have it somewhere in their oeuvre. The Beatles have it in songs like ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’. You don’t find it in the screaming violin passages in Mahler’s symphonies. You do experience it, again and again, in his lovely song cycles. You can find it in music that might otherwise seem almost arid, like some of Phillip Glass.

I wrote some time ago about attending a concert in the Mendelssohn house in Leipzig where two pianists showed an audience how technical virtuosity is empty if it is not connected to musical feeling (though I am sure that was not their intention). If the passage, or work, is simply there to make the performer’s life difficult, then of course  it will be hard for anyone to bring out its musical quality, for it may not have much of it. A lot of Paganini’s violin music gives me this feeling.  Bach’s ‘Well-tempered Clavier’, in contrast, is replete with musicality, as are lots of his keyboard pieces which were composed to provide technical exercises for his sons.

In the case of the Tchaikovsky concerto Hoang Pham played the lyrical parts with great feeling and skill. But there was nothing much he or anyone could do with the bombastic opening. Tchaikovsky’s musicality is abundant in the ballet music, and in parts of his symphonies. I don’t find much of it in his first piano concerto.

As I said, these are questions of taste, and I am explaining my own rather than trying to convert others to it. I am probably deeply old-fashioned and unreconstructed in all of this. I find a lot of modern music too loud, too dissonant and too complex for my taste. I search for musicality, and lament its absence. That doesn’t mean that I yearn for ‘Swoon’ music, the theme of the current ABC Classic FM countdown. Too much of that can be sickly.

Music is such a puzzle. We find it hard to define it. Its range and reach are vast. Writing about it is not nearly as important as listening to it. But over a long life I’ve come to value the composers and the performers whose aim is to produce aural beauty, even if I do not wholly understand what they are about. Beethoven’s string quartets, of which I have also written, possess a great deal of beauty, but that is not their real claim to fame, which is that in their entirety they represent a musical journey over a composer’s life that expresses the essence of music, at least as I understand it. Musicality is the highest expression of humanity’s highest art form.

And we still can’t say exactly what it is.

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    Great post, Don, and very well written as usual. I’m roughly your age, enjoy some classical music, but don’t have your musical knowledge. I just like what I like. I’m an appallingly intellectually-deficient bogan, and I like something that’s melodious/tuneful. I even enjoy watching a DVD of an Andre Rieu concert (how bogan is that, eh?).

    One of my favourites is Dvorjak’s 9th Symphony (The New World). Listening to it I visualise the outdoors in the far south-western states of USA, and I sometimes wonder if my visualisation originated in my boyhood when we used to go to Saturday matinees and saw many “Westerns”, featuring Gene Autry, Roy Rogers etc. Did they play the New World as background music in some of these movies? Maybe.

  • Mike says:

    I agree with whyisitso the New World Symphony I like as well but my favourite composer is Beethoven particularly his opera Fidelio which I have enjoyed for 50 years roundabout also many others of his works. Regrettably I’ve only seen a live performance of the Fidelio once.

    We were subscribers to the CSO but became dissatisfied and decided we would be better saving the money and taking a trip to the Opera house in Sydney instead. My taste in music doesn’t extend to modern symphonies or operas. Yes bums on seats was becoming increasingly important when we stopped. Not that I blame them for this the money has to come from somewhere.The other thing was that they had become somewhat slack. The last performance we went to two members of the orchestra walked on to play their instruments in the middle of the performance.

    For the last few years I’ve had a crisis of faith which doesn’t quite explain it but I do not know what else to call it. The classics are performed at great expense for instance an orchestra has 70 or more people in it, they need to be paid and then there is the building costs. Why should I benefit from money levied from people who would rather see a football match?

    I wonder if in the future the CSO will put on “The grand final the Opera”

  • Alan Gould says:

    Don,
    A determined and useful try at the ineffable. Thanks for it. When I went through English at ANU ’68-’71, one of the trickier operations my teachers performed on me with regard to literature was to distinguish when I liked a thing, and when I appreciated a thing. I can be mindful of Pope’s wit, brilliant polemical skills, supple, confident craft in his prosody, and so on, whiule not especially wanting to be in his company. Shakespeare, Auden, David Campbell, by contrast, I simply like to ‘be with’.
    So I think it is with music. Some evidently skilful stuff is simply repellent. Some displays virtues that illumine how dextrous is the composer (and the mind of humankind at its cleverest). And some simply charms.What do I mean by charm? I think the anthropology of charm is very intriguing. It stems from that encounter between two of our remote forbears whereby, from some gesture, smile, action, wariness or hostility was allayed and trust/intrigue instantaneously established. So when a piece of music charms us, there is this instantaneous trust aroused. An intellectual comprehending of the music may follow, or may be needless.
    In my case, I know it has happened when I start singing along, or in earlier days, where I felt compelled to get up and dance. As I wander about Mt Ainslie with my gismo in my ears, I listen to a great deal of Vaughan Williams, and draw people’s stares when they hear my crude humming overriding what is filling my ears and mind with the heartrending gaiety of, say ‘The Running Set’ or ‘The Morris Dance’ from VW’s ‘King Cole Suite’, or the moment in ‘The First Norfolk Rhapsody’ where the lovely slow airs pause and a quickening occurs, as though Sir John Falstaff had just burled out from a hedge and was swaggering down the lane rather pleased with himself.
    And as I say, I experience this charm from entirely undemanding music, like, say ‘The Star Of The County Down’, or that lovely ballad, ’51st Highland Division’s Farewell To Sicily’. I have not answered your question here, other than to introduce this odd attribute of our nature, charm. I think I agree with you, that Music is our highest art, probably because it is also our most inchoate, and therefore touching reaches of the beyond usually less available to other arts. My next collection of poems largely concerns itself with ‘what we see’ when we hear music.
    Vaughan Williams was once asked if he would compose music in heaven after he died. “In heaven I will be music,” he replied.

  • margaret says:

    “I am probably deeply old-fashioned and unreconstructed in all of this” … why be self-effacing when it’s as you say a matter of taste.
    Don you have an in depth knowledge of classical music, others like me are concerned that Joni Mitchell has never been recognised for her musicality in the same way as Bob Dylan has for his poetry.
    I thought I would never want to hear Pachelbel’s Canon again after it was used as the theme of the television series Vietnam – however, on the weekend I saw a film called Clouds of Sils Maria where once again it featured and really enhanced a good film.
    I love Schubert’s Trout Quintet and also despite the ‘elevator music’ aspect of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons I find it uplifting to the spirits. I cannot listen to Barber’s Adagio for Strings without spiralling downwards and I like Mozart a LOT. But there’s so much music that isn’t classical and that is so good – so yes, it’s a matter of taste.

  • Alan Gould says:

    If I think further about the appeal of much of Vaughan Williams’ music to me and the idea of charm I broach below, I’m drawn to an idea I once used in reviewing some collections of poetry, what I call ‘The Yes-Wow Molecule.’
    This is what I mean by the term. When we are drawn to a piece of art – music, literature, painting, we experience broadly a dual reaction – a Wow! of surprise and a Yes! of recognition. But importantly this is a simultaneous sensation, a compound emotion, (and thus a molecule). We want the thing to have the vibrancy of a fresh thing while at the same time it has the echolalia of something we recognise in the world. This can be on a register where there is one or more of the other, but neither can be entirely absent and still draw our interest. Too much Wow runs to the incomprehensible. Too much Yes runs to the banal.
    So, when I listen to VW, I am hearing, say, the folksong tradition of the British Isles embroidered into the fabric of his pieces at the same time I hear the utterly luminous orchestration where a violin, an oboe, a tuba emerge from and submerge into the orchestral throng. So I am both thrilled and gratified in the same instant, and this tension, created in contradictory emotional impulses, makes my reaction to the artwork special beyond my more routine reactions. Not Yes and Wow, but Yes-and-wow.

  • PeterE says:

    I think you are on the right track. To be good music, music must delight and it must move you, move you to tears. You mention Schubert, Mozart, Bach and the Beatles and all have these qualities. ‘Small town memorials’ is a fine, moving work of music. I agree with you; I can’t stand bombast or show-off technical virtuosity. In my case, I rarely go to a concert. In terms of piano, give me the incomparable Ferdinand La Menthe (‘Jelly Roll Morton’). For example, listen to his own composition ‘Wolverine Blues’ played as a trio with the brothers Johnny (clarinet) and ‘Baby’ Dodds (percussion). I don’t much like pianist Count Basie’s swing bands but he himself evokes a tremendous amount of delight with absolutely minimal effects. In recent times ABC FM’s Colin Fox has been playing ‘If I loved You,’ the passage of dialogue and the duet between the young girl and the Carousel worker composed by Rogers and Hammerstein. It is, indeed, a beautiful work. Another example: yesterday I was listening to ‘West End Blues’ played by the orchestra of the composer and muted-trumpet master, Joseph ‘King’ Oliver. This man was all music. And yet his recording fades into insignificance when set against the performance of the same work by his pupil Louis [pronounced Lewis] Armstrong with a small group of musicians, all of whom are superb. This latter is a marvel of good music. I’ll leave it there.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    I greatly appreciate the comments!

    On Dvorak, here is a memory from my MS of Memories, which one day, d.v., will be available to readers, but not in print, because there is no really sensible way to set the memories out, since they can be assembled chronologically, or by subject.

    Music 1946

    It is wintertime in,Canberra and I am inside at half-past four, both because it is too cold outside and because there is a radio serial I want to listen to. It is ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’, and what I wait for is the theme music. The sound is rich and orchestral, and I think of it as ‘gallopy, gallopy’, because there are horses in the plot and the music seems to emulate them. I ask my mother what the music is, and she doesn’t know. Because she is a fine singer and pianist, and keen to encourage my interest in music, she finds out that the serial music is from the fourth movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. There is a listener–request program on Radio 2CA, and I ask her whether she could write in and have them
    play the music for me. Apparently it is too long. The serial comes to an end, but the gallopy, gallopy music stays in my head.

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