I’m sure that I was far from alone among readers of The New York Times on March 4. When I read the article “At Caramoor, a Focus on Songs of the Belle Époque,” I thought: “Now that’s something I’d like to know more about.” Imagine my delight, then, when I heard from Michael Barrett, Executive Director of the Caramoor Center for Music and Arts, inviting me to come up to the fabulous estate — for once, the over-used fabulous is precisely the mot juste — in Katonah, New York, for a day of observation and informal interaction with the participants who had already spent a week living, learning, cooking, debating, and making music together.

It would be hard to imagine a project more perfect of its kind. Steven Blier, Artistic Director of the two-decade-old New York Festival of Song, of which he is a co-founder with Mr. Barrett, is in his second year of running for Caramoor this ten-day “spring break” concentration of minds and voices on a compelling subject that varies by the year. This year it was the French art song — or mélodie, as they say — that fell under their study, scrutiny … just what is the right word? As I watched Blier and Barrett and the four young singers at work, I must say that images of both the dining room and the kitchen kept coming before me. They were falling upon this material with an appetite that was certainly sometimes ravenous, but also full of the more refined approach of the epicure and a Julia Childlike preoccupation with the original creation of the poetry and music and, now, its re-creation.

Seeing the singers in a conference with their two mentors was a lesson in cooperative interaction, but it was when they entered upon a run-through of the actual concert-to-be that I got to the meat of what had been going on here. The first singer to come out interpreted the theme song for the week, Fauré’s “Le Plus Doux Chemin (The Sweetest Path).” The baritone John Brancy was something of a known quantity, since I see him around musical events quite often and had heard him — first when he was a high schooler, appearing on the PBS show From the Top. His rich, perfect vocal production and entirely professional stage presentation made it difficult to believe that he is just 21 and is still an undergraduate at the Juilliard School.

Then came Matthew Peña, a tenor who was new to me. The moment he began to sing, however, a magnetism that was the essence of the song he sang seemed to take over everything about him. He is somewhat more experienced, since he already has two degrees from Oberlin and one from the Manhattan School of Music, but it was his first interaction with this NYFOS crowd — I almost said cult — and it was clear that he was going to fit right in.

He was then joined for a serene but passionate love-duet by Charlotte Dobbs, a soprano who, like her tenor partner has already been through a liberal-arts education (at Yale) and is a graduate student at the Curtis Institute. But, unlike him, she also has done time with Steven Blier at Juilliard . Her demure interaction with the more extrovert Peña in this song did not quite prepare me for some of what was to come from her later, especially in the sensuous Ravel “Vocalise en forme de habanera.”

When Rebecca Jo Loeb bounced out on to the stage, it was not surprising that she was going to sing about an amorous elf. Though this mezzo-soprano projected a much more serious affect later in this varied program, she does excel at the songs that allow her to communicate in a mischievous manner with the audience. But I thought it spoke well of her that her high point came with a song in the grand tradition by the great mezzo Pauline Viardot. Since she brings with her an education at the University of Michigan, the Manhattan School, and Juilliard, we were seeing interaction of four bright young talents with a nice mixture of backgrounds.

In addition to the well-known expertise of Blier and Barrett, the group had had input the day before my visit from the French opera star and singer of song Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, who is in the country for the opening of the New York City Opera spring season, in which he portrays the male lead in Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Etoile. Since, in this program, we were never far from some song by Chabrier — a particular favorite of Steven Blier — Fouchécourt must have seemed like a Gallic prophet to these singers, some of whom were encountering large doses of French poetry and music for the first time. Indeed, he said he found them to be veritable sponges.

Jean-Paul Fouchécourt

This kind of avid absorption must be very gratifying to all the devisers of this ambitious mentoring project. Indeed, I had a chance to hear of her own satisfaction from Eileen Schwab, whose idea the mentoring program in vocal song was. Through the support of the Terrance W. Schwab Fund for Young Vocal Artists, the program grew out of Caramoor’s other mentoring programs, for instrumentalists and opera singers. This seems very important, since mentoring is one of the greatest needs in the musical art — not to mention in all of society — if skills learned in studio and classroom, and drilled in the practice room, are to take flight in the real world. But Mrs. Schwab’s enthusiasm was not just because of the process. I was hearing from her after the culminating New York concert in the Merkin Concert Hall. It was the result of all that work that inspired a rapt audience to ovation after ovation for a particularly meaty survey of French mélodie, from Gounod to Poulenc — with not a longeur all evening.

So is it the process or the result that is the point? I’d say we really don’t need to choose, since the concert that thrilled audiences in both Caramoor and New York treated the public to a valuable finished product; but, with these extraordinary young singers, we have not even begun to see the good things that will flow from their experience at Caramoor. And Steven Blier and Michael Barrett have plenty more up their commodious sleeves, as well.


It is in the period that we call by the refreshingly positive name of Renaissance that we first find composers who behave like composers, writing and publishing appreciable amounts of music, obviously learning from identifiable teachers, and influencing students whose names we know. Our ingrained Darwinism is gratified when history arrives at this—the beginning, significantly, of what historians call the Modern Era. Missing Links in stylistic lineages have been tracked down with a thoroughness that would edify paleontology. The composers of the Renaissance tend obligingly to group themselves into Schools (or at least not to resist over-much when we so group them ourselves) and generally give us what we want in the way of compositions in the various genres of the time.

But to look at Renaissance composers thus is to view them in a way that would have surprised them—and especially startled their employers—very much. Josquin Desprez, arguably the greatest composer of the Renaissance, is usually called in the old documents such things as “biscantor” (as a singer at Milan Cathedral), “cantor di capella” (when a ducal singer in the Sforza family’s service), “Josquin chantre” (as he ventured into France during his leaves from the papal chapel), and “maestro di cappella” (or teacher of the singers attached to the court of Ferrara). That he became renowned as a composer was a sort of bonus (though, in his case, an unprecedentedly large one) attached to, and greatly ornamenting, his occupation as a performer and trainer of musicians. Even his teaching of composition was described solely as an adjunct to day-by-day performance in the choir:

My teacher Josquin … never gave a lecture on music or wrote a theoretical work, and yet he was able in a short time to form complete musicians, because he did not keep back his pupils with long and useless instructions but taught them the rules in a few words, through practical application in the course of singing. And as soon as he saw that his pupils were well grounded in singing, had a good enunciation and knew how to embellish melodies [i.e., improvise around the written notes] and fit the text to the music [since much of this was left to the discretion of the performer, too], then he taught them the perfect and imperfect intervals and the different methods of inventing counterpoints against plainsong. If he discovered, however, pupils with an ingenious mind and promising disposition, then he would teach these in a few words the rules of three-part and later of four-, five-, and six-part, etc. writing, always providing them with examples to imitate.

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singing style

An individual singing style often involves a singer’s imitation—for better or worse—of a popular artist’s tone quality. It sometimes calls for a sudden break in the voice, plaintive bleating, or wild screeching: all these effects, however, are purely ephemeral and continually change with their originators.

These devices by which some singers develop a vivid, individual, and compelling style are quite familiar to us from the music all around us. They may bring to mind specific artists who have used them successfully. These will doubtless be performers of great (and perhaps somewhat uninhibited) expressivity. Some readers will think of certain now-venerable jazz singers, others of soul, folk, or rock singers whose vigorous expressive devices fit such norms of what we might call mal canto. What the quoted remark of course will not describe at all well is the goals and achievements of our best “classical” or operatic singers. Their more or less bel canto interpretation of the standard repertory of the past has become a sort of international standard. It is widely considered to have the only valid claim on the serious attention of people of elevated musical culture.

The quotation, which deserves to be read with great attention, is from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s musical dictionary of 1768. (The philosopher’s untranslatable expression here rendered as “particular style of singing” is gout de chant.) The passage refers to the best usage of Rousseau’s day. The musical events that involved such singing were naturally rather different from the specific decorum of modern “classical” occasions both in aesthetic posture and in the whole atmosphere that surrounded them. (If they weren’t considerably more highly-charged before the singing began, they certainly must have become so in the course of the breaks, bleats and screeches.) Rousseau’s description was originally applied to repertory that is now generally referred to as “early music,” which a curious chronological reflex in us will, if we are not careful, associate with the prim and the restrained—even despite the most feverish exertions of such as Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus to disillusion us.

But, in the early twenty-first century, we here and there find people willing—or perhaps driven is not too strong a word—to try to go back to earlier musical repertories with an openness to experimentation involving even the most extreme of the old expressive ways. (Joseph Kerman has described the singing of one of the best of them as “inspired screeching.”) Insofar as they do so, they bring together crucial aesthetic ideals of the “pop” culture and of the early-music nook of the “classical” culture, which manages to be rarified and frisky at the same time—not unlike some esoteric jazz circles. (Both the jazz and early-music movements, significantly, have tended to be viewed with suspicion by the same people.)

The Rousseau excerpt provides a simple and useful first example of the sort of radical anomalies in our musical life that can be considerably and usefully cleared up by a serious view of music-as-event. Somewhat different musical bedfellows are found together through an event-directed, performance-oriented approach than through the more customary chronological or social-class segregations. These latter groupings may scrupulously play by their own historiographical rules without sufficiently taking into account the nature of the musical art itself.

The works of Rousseau are of course not unknown. But the certain testimonies that his, and vast numbers of comparably illuminating sources contain, have not been as useful as they might have been: the greater cultural world has not found them sufficiently striking without adequate reference to the larger event that music indissolubly belongs to.

And that greater world is right. We will here endeavor to look at some things, both familiar and novel, with the freshest eyes that we can possibly assume. Doing so can be an exhilarating imaginative experience. Doing so will teach us much about our musical culture. It is a prerequisite to finding what that culture itself can tell us about what we are accustomed to thinking of as wider issues.
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Sasha et al.
I had the signal experience of hearing two of the best concerts of my life in one day last week. Sasha Cooke, along with an extraordinary young pianist, Pei-Yao Wang, gave possibly the best vocal recital I’ve ever heard. I do not say this lightly and have witnessed concerts by most of the greatest singers of my time. (The first recital by a singer I ever heard, as a youngster in Kingsport, was by the great Eleanor Steber, if that gives you some idea of my perspective.)

Joined for a riveting new piece by the composer-poet Lera Auerbach, who played the piano for its New York premiere along with the young cellist of the moment, Alisa Weilerstein, this recital — at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon — was a revelation from the first notes of the Schubert set that began it.

Later the same evening — what were the chances? — I heard the most memorable string-quartet concert of its kind in my experience. (Not even this strong impression can completely efface the memory of hearing the Juilliard String Quartet play all the Carter quartets in one evening.) We are constantly told about the wit in Haydn’s music. And yet we hear performance after performance in which there is little or no evidence of this. When the Daedalus Quartet (noted in this space before) played the master’s last quartet, there was genuine, spontaneous, and appropriate laughter in the audience. This despite the fact that their playing never stepped outside the strictest bounds of Classic idiom and the most refined tone, inflection, and ensemble. This feat is Haydn’s accomplishment, and theirs.

That they made the thorny serialism of Artur Schnabel’s most ambitious quartet almost as accessible was an equal accomplishment.

Joined by the peerless clarinetist David Shifrin, they then delivered a definitive Brahms quintet. Is it any wonder that I want to communicate to you something of the rewards all these artists offer?

To celebrate that day and to mark it on my little Web site, I append here the program notes that I wrote for the latter concert.


The Austrian composer Dittersdorf and Haydn were friends as young men. One night while roaming the streets they stopped outside a common beer hall in which the musicians, half drunk and half asleep, were fiddling away miserably at a Haydn minuet …

Entering the taproom, Haydn sat down beside the leader and asked casually, “Whose minuet?” The man snapped, “Haydn’s.” Haydn moved in front of him and, feigning anger, declared: “That’s a stinking minuet.”

“Says who?” demanded the fiddler, jumping out of his seat with rage. The other musicians rallied round him and were poised to smash their instruments over Haydn’s head but Dittersdorf, a big fellow, shielded Haydn with his arm and pushed him out of the door. — Norman Lebrecht: The Book of Musical Anecdotes

Haydn once said that no one could compose a truly original minuet. And yet he did it himself over and over. That the second movement of Op. 77, No. 2 exemplifies his inventiveness in what could be a formalistic, rather harmless dance-form is not so surprising when we remember that tonight’s opening work is the last quarter that Haydn completed. By that time he had composed so many quartets as to give free reign to his legendary originality.

His swan-song in the genre is a worthy summing-up of Haydn’s by now easygoing mastery of the string quartet, composed after the seminal master of the string quartet had been stimulated by hearing quartets of the young Mozart and Beethoven. It has often been said that Haydn’s string quartets are symphonies for the chamber, and there is no doubt that he lavished as much invention and care on these works as upon his symphonies, the performances of which were inevitably destined for a much larger public.

The quartet is dedicated to its commissioner, Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz, a Bohemian aristocrat and patron of music, resident in Vienna. Thanks to imperial decree, he alone had responsibility for all the Viennese theaters from 1807. His place in music history should be secure, since he not only commissioned Haydn’s string quartets Op. 77 but was a co-commissioner of The Creation and The Seasons, and to whom Beethoven dedicated a number of works. (Haydn was not bestowing the summit of his accomplishment in the medium just anywhere.) It begins with the kind of sonata-allegro movement that Haydn did so much to cultivate. That leads to the Minuet, which is the second movement, transferred from its usual place as the third movement. It is also extraordinary for its tempo, presto, which removes it even further from a routine minuet, allowing the succeeding slower movement to set up for maximum effectiveness the almost reckless finale.

The Brahms Clarinet Quintet was created, not for its commissioner, but for its first performers. These included Joseph Joachim, who was Brahms’s ideal interpreter of his violin parts, and the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Brahms was so enchanted by the playing of the latter that he emerged from retirement to compose the quintet in 1891. He explicitly looked to Mozart’s famous Clarinet Quintet as an exemplar — another work that had been devised for the special playing of a favorite clarinetist.

When the strings begin with the theme of the first movement, the solemn — even somber — mood of the work is set. The clarinet begins the second movement in a reflective song-like melody that subsides into the dark atmosphere created by the first movement. The shorter third movement begins in a graceful, relaxed manner, setting up a dialogue between the clarinet and the first violin and between the minor home key and its brighter relative key of D major. The agitation that succeeds the pacific opening returns the work to darker regions. Mozart’s influence is again to the fore in the theme and variations of the final movement, a feature of his own clarinet quintet.

Despite contemporary qualms about identifying “central” artistic traditions and “peripheral” ones, if we can speak of a mainstream in concert music, at least between the French Revolution and the Second World War, it surely flows right through Central Europe. And eminent among the musicians in the full flood of that stream we would find Haydn, Brahms, and Schnabel.

In their day, Haydn and Brahms were famed as performers. But, thanks to the evanescence of live sound and the durability of paper, we now think of them primarily as composers. With Schnabel, the reverse has been true — not only because his lifetime as a leading international performer is not so long past, but also because of his towering achievements in pioneering large-scale and systematic recording. With the perspective of distance, we now have the opportunity to become less bedazzled by his recordings and reputation as a pianist at the expense of his very significant achievement as a composer. Already we can see, in the changes between the 1978 edition of Slonimsky’s great biographical dictionary (where Schnabel is called “celebrated Austrian pianist and pedagogue”) and and the latest Grove Dictionary, which identifies him as  “Austrian pianist and composer, later naturalized American” how this has begun to develop. Slonimsky only mentions that “Schnabel was also a composer” in the last sentence of his article. Grove, on the other hand, not only gives thorough analysis to his place in the history of performance, but integrates his life as a composer into its account of his career, including a list of his works (and notes that most of them were then unavailable).

Now that the unavailability has been remedied thanks to the Schnabel Music Foundation and Peermusic Classical, how do we hear this evening’s three works in relation to each other? One is part of the indispensable Viennese corpus of Classical string quartets, one is at the summit of the Romantic chamber-music (and, certainly, clarinet) literature, and the other most of us are still able to hear as a fresh, new composition. Like Haydn, Schnabel gave a special place to the string quartet in his compositional life. It is the only medium of composition that he cultivated with utter completeness, and he seems to have felt that working with four strings freed him from the ways of thinking that a piano keyboard inevitably led him into.

The fifth quartet of Schnabel, composed in Colorado in 1940, is of very great seriousness, both as to its general tone and the earnest complexity of its construction. One of only two occasions when Schnabel employed twelve-tone techniques, it is possible to hear the work as a mosaic of short melodies, sometimes of a surprisingly conventional contour, whose combination is anything but traditional. The composer seems to have had confidence in his dodecaphonic skill, since he sent a copy of the quartet to his compatriot and fellow American resident Arnold Schoenberg, the high priest of the technique. Like Schoenberg, Schnabel was as well-versed in the classical canon as it is possible to be — and in his case was of course a supreme interpreter of a large section of it. It is thus of great interest to hear how, in his own composition, he is pushing at the boundaries and extending the structures that belonged to the literature that was, throughout a monumentally productive life, his daily bread.

songs-disc Bridge Records is just about to release Songs of John Musto. Here are the liner notes that I wrote for the disc:

Has there ever before been a place or time that offered such glorious opportunity as American song now enjoys? The widest possible field seems to be open to it. Not only do its practitioners feel free to use classical tonality in its many guises, but all of post-tonality and post-post-tonality are at their disposal as well. 

Since at least Debussy and Vaughan Williams, our more cultivated composers feel free even to try medieval modes anytime they desire such variegated colors and more muted harmonic functionality; and every Western and non-Western culture now offers itself as a quarry ready to be mined — with universals like the pentatonic scale on the one hand and the specialized colors of local idioms on the other. While all this certainly represents a rich gift to our composers, it also calls for an unprecedented discretion, demanding taste judgements that even a stylistic eclectic like Bach — whose music could speak Italian, French, or North German as his muse dictated — might have found challenging.
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12.11.08_QOnStage_LatertheSameEvening Last night in New York I had the privilege of witnessing one of those sensational musical-theatrical moments. Since I wrote the program notes for the event, and have other sympathies both personal and professional with various principals, I am hardly a disinterested observer. But the assembled luminaries and intelligent followers of the art seemed remarkably united in a community that, as the libretto said, “laughs together, weeps together … and then goes out into the night again.” And, since the New York Times critic assigned to the event came down with the ‘flu’ at the last minute and couldn’t come, I thought I’d do my compensatory bit by posting my own non-evaluative account of this work, written before last night’s New York premiere:

Few could have anticipated the kind or degree of interest and excitement that crackled through a wing of the National Gallery of Art on that summer morning in 2006. A press conference had been called to announce something utterly unprecedented in the illustrious history of the institution. As one of the Gallery’s prominent patrons said to me with a conspicuous overflow of joy: “We’re causing an opera!” — which they were in fact doing, in collusion with the fine opera program at the University of Maryland and its elegant Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
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Endless Mélodies

June 24, 2008

“Le Papillon et la fleur” … was my very first piece, composed in the school dining hall amid the smells from the kitchen … and my first interpreter was Saint-Saëns.

Thus the 78-year-old Fauré, looking back over 56 years to his schooldays at Paris’s newly founded Niedermeyer School of Classical and Religious Music. Fauré boarded for eleven years at the school, where he received an education that was in some ways radically conservative (with Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony as constants) and in some ways uniquely up-to-date (with the ardent young Camille Saint-Saëns introducing the boys to the latest music of Liszt and Wagner). The mixture goes far to explain why, when he became known as a composer, Fauré was thought of as a disruptively extreme progressive — though it may be difficult now for us to see how his music could have shocked anyone. Much of what was thought jarringly new in Fauré was in fact antique: he based many of his harmonic procedures on the 16th-century polyphony that had largely formed his taste. Thanks to the early-music movement, our ears are more accustomed than our great-grandparents’ were to the sonorities of Renaissance music.
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Niche Fame

February 5, 2008

180px-pergolesi.jpg An e-mail from my niece, who sings in the choir of Saint Luke’s Cathedral in Orlando, tells me that they’ll be performing Théodore Dubois‘s Seven Last Words on March 9. This reminds me that, with Lent beginning tomorrow, whole swaths of the repertory that play little part in concert-hall life will received hundreds of performances around the globe. Dubois, who was organist of the Madeleine in Paris and director of the Paris Conservatory (not to mention being godfather of Nadia Boulanger) was once a considerable musical influence, now not much thought of. However, he has been widely performed through that one highly dramatic work, composed in French for the pious meditation of fashionable Parisians.

This got me to thinking of another work that occasionally appears in concert halls but is drastically present in churches between now and Easter, the Stabat Mater of Pergolesi. What is its origin? What else is it related to?

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736) brings something new to history: he was the first composer to enjoy posthumous fame after an obscure career and a pauper’s burial.

Pergolesi’s last two works were settings of expressive Marian texts, Stabat Mater and Salve Regina. While the Stabat Mater was to become his best-known work (eclipsing the Scarlatti setting that it had been modeled on), much of Pergolesi’s fame came from his comic opera La serva padrona. That genial comedy’s celebrity is understandable, since it epitomizes the progressive opera buffa that Rousseau and his allies tirelessly propagandized. More crucially, the style of La serva padrona was indispensable to the Mozartian operatic synthesis.
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