More Must-Reads

To kick off the holiday season (and all that free time you’ll have sitting in front of the stocking-spangled fireplace), I’ve just updated the list for your Christmas-reading pleasure (see bottom of the list for update specifics). Keep the suggestions coming, and have a merrily musicological Christmas!


Mahler the Giant

… [A symphony] so great that the whole world is actually reflected therein – so that one is, so to speak, only an instrument upon which the universe plays.   — Mahler

Ambitious goal, that. To Mahler, the artistic aim to create a “universal symphony”  translated into expanding both the size and scope of the ensemble and the form. Where the average symphony up until then typically had first movements lasting roughly 10-15 minutes in duration, Mahler upped the ante to over 20 minutes in Sym.2 and over 30 in Sym.3; where the usual, humdrum orchestra had 4-6 horns, for instance, Mahler brought in a cavalry of 10 parts for Sym.2. In order to express the universal, it seems, everything needed to be larger.

RT calls this expansion of symphonic means and ambitions “maximalism,” a term that implies an uncompromising dedication to the extremes. It’s a fascinating fin de siecle paradigm that shows up in areas outside of music as well (one recalls a particular super-sized ocean liner..).

You have to wonder how much of this “maximalization” of the symphony had to do with expanding the expressive range of the orchestra to encapsulate the whole world (nay, the universe), and how much of it had to do the same sort of hubris that lay behind the construction of the aforementioned ocean liner. I’m an ardent admirer of Mahler, but there’s a lot of arrogance mixed in with the audacity here (first, to think that the “universal” is musically possible; second, to think that he would be the one who could do it). There’s an odd conflation of universality and philosophical serious-mindedness with massive orchestral forces, volume, and duration. Could not a Mozartean symphony also be “universal,” or are claims of universality proportionately related to size, making the “small” simultaneously the “non-universal”?

As a companion term to RT’s “maximalism,” I might suggest “gigantism” as another designation of the ballooning of orchestral forces, time scales, and philosophical ambitions during this period. The OED defines the word as “abnormal or monstrous size,” and in the context of the book so far (and music after the first decade or two of the 20th century), Mahlerian scale does indeed represent something abnormal. Both maximalism and gigantism work in tandem here: ambitions were extreme, but the equation of expressive range (“the whole world in a symphony”) with size expresses a “bigger is better” mentality as well.

Must-Reads Update

Have you been doing your musicological beach reading this summer? We’re in the process of updating the must-reads list with new entries, and I wanted to take this opportunity once again to solicit suggestions (either credited or uncredited). Let us know which works you find completely indispensable to the field (and for music-lovers generally), and we’ll make sure they’re included.

New Header Image: Tristan and Isolde

Even though the header image we’ve had for the last month or so has been one of my favorites (Friedrich’s, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818), it’s time for a fresh look. Since much of the reading this week and in the coming weeks will deal with Wagner, our new header features the husband and wife singers who created the roles of Tristan and Isolde, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Taruskin calls Tristan und Isolde (completed 1859, premiered 1865) “a touchstone for all subsequent music-making and music-thinking.” (III, 539) The full photograph is below.

Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Tristan and Isolde

News and Housekeeping

Mark and I were recently interviewed by Prof. Marica Tacconi for the August AMS newsletter (view the newsletter here or download it from the AMS site here). The issue also features a great essay on musicology and blogging by the stalwart Ryan Bañagale and Drew Massey at amusicology.

Since we’ve fallen behind a bit with the weekly readings (and I trust summer-vacationing readers have done the same..), August will begin with p. 251, our last page of reading before we went silent. We want to keep trudging ahead with the book, but right now might be a good time to take a summer breather. We have to rotate in some beach reading, after all..

July has been a dreadfully slow month on the blog, but I have a decent excuse: I’ve been away for the last three weeks getting married and going on a honeymoon. Now that I’m back home with a computer, let the reading and the posting commence! If anyone would like to contribute to the blog to help fill our summer lull, we’d be delighted to accommodate your posts. Just let Mark and me know.

Must-Reads Update

After much dithering, we’ve finally updated the musicology must-reads list to reflect suggestions in the comment board as well as added a batch of new books that were recommended by colleagues and teachers over the last couple months. Remember, the list is a work in progress; it only grows through your suggestions! Please help out by letting us know your favorite music books: you can submit comments or email Mark or me directly.

Concurrent Styles in JS Bach’s Lifetime, Visually [UPDATED]

Ralph Locke aptly reminded us recently what epiphanies can come when we step back and juxtapose different stylistic streams that occurred concurrently in history. Just for fun, I decided to make a timeline to visually reinforce his point. The timeline is quite circumspect, with JS Bach’s lifetime as the rough overall frame, and only including the pieces under our recent discussion (JS’s cantatas, Pergolesi, and WF Bach’s keyboard sonata in F), and many more could be included. But you can easily see that Pergolesi’s entire short life fits within the span of JS’s mature career. I also couldn’t resist including Johann Stamitz on the timeline to represent the symphonic tradition, about which we will be reading soon. Though Stamitz outlived JS, Handel outlived Stamitz by two years. (Click on the image to pull up a larger version.)

The timeline was made with the demo version of Timeline 3D.


Here is an updated version of the timeline incorporating suggestions from Jonathan Bellman (see the comments). It includes bookends of JS’s career: Brandenburg concertos at the front end, and Musical Offering at the tail. I also made the image file larger. If these images seem helpful to anyone, feel free to save them and use them freely for your own purposes.

Dire News?

All lovers of classical music should take note of Alex Ross’s recent New Yorker article “Close Reading” (only available online by subscription, unfortunately), which takes a sober look at the sharp decline of classical audiences. We all know that the majority of folks in the symphony hall are geriatric, and this has been the case for a while. However, for many years, orchestras could rest assured that as people aged they would grow more interested in classical music – after all, our “high art” tradition is only for those with mature, cultivated tastes, right? Not so today. As boomers hit their 60s they show no sign of suddenly wanting to spend their money to hear Brahms (they’re buying the latest Bob Dylan reissue instead?). The NEA has just released a survey showing trends in the public participation in the arts, and it’s pretty dire. (Ross blogs on these findings here and here.)

The bulk of the article is a review of a new venue in NY called “Le Poisson Rouge,” founded by a couple of 20-something classical musicians. The concept: make the music intimate, up close, and casual, like a jazz club. The interior of the club looks a bit like “The Village Vanguard” or “Iridium”; Ross writes about the surreal experience of eating nachos while listening to Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor; and as you can see from the calendar, they run a pretty eclectic gamut of music, from DJs to Gorecki. Lincoln Center this is not.

I think this is a really promising concept. Perhaps for the older generation, a darkened voluminous concert hall, reverential silence, and formal attire symbolized class, sophistication, and “good taste.” For many young people today (and I’m counting Gen Xers and even baby boomers as young here), this ritual is alienating, pretentious, and irrelevant. What sort of a musical event regulates everything down to the decorum of coughing?

This is really a troubling problem. Like the newspaper industry, American orchestras are going to need to do something about this. How do you interpret the decline of classical music audiences? Is this dire news, or can you imagine strategies for getting butts back in the seats? What do you think of the “Le Poisson Rouge” concept – is this the future of classical music?

New Feature On Its Way: Musicology Must-Reads

Students: Have you ever gone to your music history professor’s office hours and asked, “This musicology stuff is kind of cool, and I’d like to learn more about it. Can you suggest some music scholarship books as a starting point?”

Teachers: Have you ever had a student come to your office hours and ask the same question? What do you tell them?

We have alternately asked and been asked these very questions frequently. Judging by conversations with colleagues, it’s not all that infrequent for them either. And yet there is no obvious place to send the inquiring minds that come our way.

Next week we will try our hand at filling this gap by rolling out a new feature of this site called “Musicology Must-Reads.” It will be an on-going, semi-annotated list of books that we consider to be rich, inspiring, or sound examples of what the discipline is about. The initial list will be just a beginning—we hope that the musicological community will also chime in over time to make it a solid catalog and resource for students. Keep an eye out for it.