The College Of Musical Knowledge: Giovanni Battista Viotti

The Idagio cellphone app offers a “radio play” feature that allows you to listen to the music of favorite composers — and a little else, besides.  From time to time, the folks at Idagio will include a piece by a different composer, just to mix things up a little.

892px-giovanni_battista_viotti_aftertrofsarelliThat’s how I discovered the music of Giovanni Battista Viotti.  I was listening to “Mozart radio” and a piece that didn’t sound quite like Mozart began playing.  I checked the app and saw that the radio was playing a piece by Viotti — a composer that I had never heard of or, to my knowledge, listened to.  I liked the piece that was playing, so I decided to see if there was a Viotti radio option.  Sure enough, there was, and after listening to it I found that I liked Viotti’s work quite a bit.

Born in 1750, Viotti was a violin virtuoso who was a prolific composer of violin-centric concertos and other pieces.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that the violin features prominently in his pieces.  He lived a colorful life that saw him working at the court of Marie Antoinette, became embroiled in the French Revolution, and was later expelled from England for a time due to concerns about his potential revolutionary sympathies.  Along the way Viotti and his Stradivarius helped to establish the French school of violin playing, and his compositions influenced Beethoven and Brahms.

Viotti doesn’t exactly get a warm reception from the critics — and I suspect that the fact that some music historians view him as a kind of suck-up to the nobility of the day doesn’t help the reviews of his music.  One article about him, for example, says that the quality of his playing was vastly superior to his compositions, variously describing them as “sweet but anaemic” and “tedious.”  Another article acknowledges that Viotti’s music was admired by his contemporaries and that his violin concertos show true compositional prowess, but his other pieces are “relatively uninspired.”

Not being a musical scholar or analyst, I can’t comment on Viotti’s composition — but I can say that I like his music quite a bit.  It’s very melodic and often uplifting, and is great walking music.  I particularly like his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 15 in B flat major and its jaunty third movement.  It and other pieces have been added to my Idagio list of favorites.

One lesson in the College of Musical Knowledge is that you shouldn’t let what critics say define your personal playlist.  I enjoy Viotti’s music, and I really don’t care whether he’s acclaimed by modern critics or not.

At The College Of Musical Knowledge

When it comes to rock music, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good grip on its history and principal performers.  I lived through most of the history of that particular musical genre, was immersed in it when I was in high school and college, and read about my favorite artists and the early days of rock ‘n roll, the British invasion, and psychedelia.  I can pretty easily identify songs that fell into subgenres like doo-wop, bubblegum, acid rock, and disco and can identify obscure songs and artists.  And even though I don’t listen to current rock music much these days, I still carry around that history.

2014-ryan-stees-featureWith classical music, that’s not true.  I didn’t pick it up because it was the prevailing musical form in my formative years; instead, the apogee of the classical period happened decades or even centuries before I was born.  I’ve listened to it over the years, but my knowledge really is narrow and about an inch deep.  I’ve watched Amadeus, listened to a kid’s tape we had when the boys were little called Mr. Beethoven Lives Upstairs, and am generally familiar with at least some of the creations of some of classical music’s biggest names, like Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven.  I know that I really like baroque music.  But . . . that’s about it.  I still confuse Schubert and Schumann.

For a fan of the music, my knowledge is pretty dismal.  It’s embarrassing.

Recently I’ve decided that I’m not just going to accept my state of blissful classical music ignorance, and am going to try to broaden my horizons by discovering some new composers, learning about distinguishing between the different classical musical periods, and trying to understand the whole composing process and how orchestration works.  I’m not going to try to learn how to read music — we’re talking baby steps here — but I’m hoping to end up with a better appreciation for the music that I listen to most frequently these days.

Thanks to the great Idagio app that I’ve written about before, I’ve already discovered a few previously unknown composers whose music I really like, and learned some interesting things about process.  This year I’ll be reporting from time to time on what I’m getting out of my enrollment in the College of Musical Knowledge.  Fortunately, there’s no curriculum, and there won’t be any midterms.  I’ll just be auditing the classes.

Countdown Lists

The other day I drove up to Cleveland.  I tuned in to Sirius XM’s Symphony Hall for the drive, and learned that they were counting down the Top 76 classical recordings, as voted by their participating listeners.  I caught the countdown at number 11, which was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.  I was immediately intrigued by the countdown notion, and then was immediately astonished when the countdown continued and I learned that Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue came in at number 10.  Rhapsody in Blue, over Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony?  Seriously?  In what universe?

1200x600bfBy the time I reached Cleveland the countdown was at number six — Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons — and I was sorry that my drive had ended.  When I got home that night, I checked out the final few songs that rounded out the Top 10.  Beethoven dominated, with three pieces in the Top 10 and the Ninth Symphony coming in at number one, but the more modern composers did pretty well too, with Rachmaninoff, Barber, and Copland — as well as Gershwin — all getting Top 10 slots.  But wait a minute . . . no Bach?  No Handel?  No Haydn?  No Boccherini?  The baroque era and Haydn got horribly short-changed by Symphony Hall listeners, in my view.  You can check out the Symphony Hall list here.

Why are people like me interested in countdown lists?  Those of us who grew up listening to Casey Kasem doing American Top 40 every week, to see which songs were moving up, which were moving down, and who was up there at number one, are pretty much conditioned to pay attention to countdown lists.  But ultimately, the lists are just a way of keeping your finger on the pulse of the world at large and what other people are thinking, and liking.  They don’t really mean much in terms of actual quality or lasting significance — after all, the Pipkins’ Gimme Dat Ding reached the American Top 10 in 1970.  Retrospective lists, like the Symphony Hall list, provide great fodder for argument, though and you might just learn something or try something new as a result.  I’m going to give a listen to some of the unfamiliar pieces on the Symphony Hall countdown list.

Idagio

I’m admittedly something of a cheapskate, and my cellphone is pretty much app-free as a result.  I’m willing to pay for music, however, and when my old iPod started to show signs of its age I began looking for a new, reliable source for music to listen to on my walks.

220px-beethovenAfter doing some research, I decided to subscribe to Idagio, a classical music app, and it has been a great choice for me.  I really enjoy classical music, but I feel like my knowledge — of the scope of the works of different composers and of pieces from different genres and periods — is both narrow and shallow.  When your exposure is confined to the stuff you’ve personally added to your iPod, it’s going to be limited by definition.  For the cost of only a few bucks a month, Idagio has fixed that problem.  Now I’ve got access to a sweeping library of works by composers I’ve never really listened to before, and I feel like I’ve been launched on a pleasant voyage of discovery.

I like how Idagio is organized.  The “discover” section of the app highlights new works from artists, new albums, and playlists that have been created for Idagio.  When you go to the “browse” section of the app, you can choose among composers, ensembles, soloists, conductors, instruments, genres, or periods,  If you pick a favorite composer, you can listen to the composer’s “radio,” which is a random selection of pieces by the composer, or you can listen to their work sorted by popularity or pieces that were recently added.  If you like baroque music, as I do, you can focus on that period, listen to an assortment of music, hear composers you’ve not heard before, then do searches of the “composers” library to take a deeper dive into what they’ve created.  If you then hear something that you like, you can download it and create your own library of personal favorites.  The app also organizes music into “moods” — like “gentle,” “happy,” “exciting,” “passionate,” or “angry” — and the Idagio-created playlists include a range of options, from collections designed to increased concentration and focus to composer-specific and period-specific options, like Mozart piano music or “baroque meditation.”

In short, there are lots of different ways to hear the music, which increases the ability to use Idagio as a tool to broaden your exposure to the sprawling world of classical music.  And that’s a big reason why I’m a fan of this app.

Getting Goosebumps

I’m a goosebump kind of guy.  Put on the right piece of music — preferably opera or a stirring piece of classical music — and I’ll be reacting with the familiar chills running up and down my arms, leaving the little hairs vibrating.  The selection above from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or a beautiful Puccini aria from La Boheme, or Wagner’s Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, among many others, will do it every time.

What causes goosebumps or, to use the more elegant French term, frisson?  (Either of which, incidentally, is preferable in my book to the description used by some researchers —  “skin orgasms” — which makes a pure, deep, emotional reaction to music sound a little bit tawdry and embarrassing.)  Scientists aren’t quite sure.  It’s pretty easy to identify the kinds of music that provoke the reaction; typically the selections involve soaring notes or unexpected changes in volume, tone, or harmony.  But why do some people experience a noticeable physical reaction to such auditory stimulation?

Some scientists theorize that there are evolutionary roots to the reaction, because the arm hair response would help to warm our much hairier ancestors, but that doesn’t make much sense to me.  After all, a significant portion of humans — somewhere between 20 and 40 percent — never experience goosebumps, which seems like a pretty big percentage if you’re positing that the reaction is somehow significant to evolutionary success.  And I can’t exactly picture early hominids listening to Mozart or Bach or their prehistoric equivalent.

Other researchers think the goosebump phenomenon is tied to personality.  The goosebump group will like this:  some research studies indicate that those who shiver with frisson tend to get high marks in a personality trait called “openness to experience,” which is linked to a lot of positive characteristics like unusually active imaginations, appreciation of beauty and nature, intellectual curiosity, interest in trying out new experiences, and enjoyment of variety in life.  That makes us goosebumpistas sound pretty superior, but I honestly doubt that there’s really a big difference between us and the frisson-free folk.  I think it’s simply that people react to music differently.

There’s a reason why music was developed in the first place, after all.  It enriches our existence and makes us feel good — a sensation that some of us experience physically.  And we should be glad for that, too.  Who knows?  Maybe we wouldn’t have had the rich human tradition of beautiful music, in all its forms, if our ancestors hadn’t experienced a shudder of frisson once in a while.

The Wonder Of Beethoven

img_3144

Last night Kish and I got our Beethoven fix.  The Columbus Symphony Orchestra was putting on a Beethoven Marathon, and we caught the three principal performances — of the Second Symphony, the Triple Concerto in C major (shown in the photo above), and finally the fabulous Seventh Symphony.  (The Symphony also offered a pre-concert performance of the Quintet for Piano and Winds and a post-concert String Quartet in C-sharp minor, but we missed those two additions due to dinner on the front end and increasing age on the back end.)

The program was wonderful.  I’m always fascinated by the live performance of a symphony orchestra — to see so many diverse instruments working together to produce a coherent sound, rather than cacophony — and by the creative impulses that moved a genius like Beethoven to create such magical music in the first place.  I think the second movement of the Seventh Symphony, for example, is simply one of the most deeply moving pieces of music ever composed, full of tension, straining and stirring and soaring and humble all at the same time.  How did it come to him?  Someone who has no musical talent (like me) cannot begin to guess what it must be like to hear such melodies in your head.  That Beethoven was able to create such music while his hearing was failing just makes the whole creative process more brilliant and astonishing.

Interesting, isn’t it, that long after the leaders and issues of his day have been consigned to the dustbin of history and then forgotten, Beethoven’s music — and Mozart’s, and Bach’s, and Wagner’s, and Haydn’s — lives on, to be performed anew and enjoyed and loved by new generation?.  The same is true of artists, and authors, and playwrights, of course.  We don’t remember the Popes, minor nobility, doges, kings, queens, and wealthy patrons who supported Michelangelo, da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Beethoven, but we know the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Mona Lisa, the St. Crispin’s Day speech, and the stirring first chords of the Fifth Symphony.

Politics is ephemeral; art, music, and beauty are eternal. When you have the opportunity to listen to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, that is really what you are hearing.

Atonality Aversion

On Friday we’ll be going to another performance of the Columbus Symphony.  Part of the Symphony’s American Roots Festival series, the performance will mix familiar pieces — such as George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and an overture by Antonin Dvorak — with some works that are totally unknown to me, including George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony and Kurt Weill’s Little Threepenny Music.

I’m always game to listen to a new musical composition, but I approach such performances with a mix of anticipation and apprehension.  I love classical music and enjoy just about everything from the baroque era forward — until we get to the “modern” classical music of the mid-20th century.  Atonal and jarring, discordant and squawking, the modern compositions are just not pleasant to hear in my view and suffer by comparison to the richly melodic and beautiful compositions of the masters.  It’s as if the classical music world hit the wall around 1950 or so.

Some people suggest that those of us who don’t like the modern stuff simply aren’t sufficiently refined and sophisticated in our musical tastes.  Their arguments remind me of the scene in Defending Your Life where Albert Brooks and his after-life guide are eating a meal.  Albert’s steak looks very tasty, while the guide’s plate is filled with what looks like elephant droppings.  When Albert asks about the difference, the guide explains that because Albert only uses a tiny fraction of his brain, much less than is used by the guide, he can’t possibly appreciate the exquisite and nuanced flavors in the plate of crap.

So perhaps my brainpower isn’t adequate to the task of enjoying modern symphonic  music — or maybe I just like steak.  I’ll be interested to listen to what Friday brings.