Liszt and romantic progressivism fallen into vain

There’s no denying it: Romantic composers never cease to amaze us with their modernity, so much for the unchanging persistence of music composed before a specific historical period (a fixed idea of many music lovers and conductors today). For example, Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886), in addition to his religious vows, had also embraced social, artistic, and political progressivism to put even Marx to shame!

The music of the time, with the legacy of the classics (in particular, Haydn and Mozart) and pre-romantic (i.e., Beethoven), now seemed burdened with a mortgage burden that was almost impossible to liquidate. Yet many theatergoers of the time were beginning to dislike the constant references to the past and unwillingly paid for theater tickets when the programs did not promise at least a few surprises.

Painting entitled "Liberty Leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix
“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix was painted in 1830 and housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The ideals of liberty, social redemption, equality, and fraternity, inspired by the French Revolution, often referenced Romantic culture. Liszt himself praised the Marseillaise as a hymn of the people and for the people, as music is no longer elitist and limited to a few connoisseurs, but instead spread to all classes, without distinction.

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow

This was before the term “classical music” was coined to refer to a sequence of “bodies” on display. I know, the phrase is a bit heavy-handed and, indeed, not disparaging in nature (me being the first admirer). Still, the bitter truth is that if Franz Listz looked to the masses, stratified into social classes dictated, not by appointments and investitures, but rather by the pressing industrial power that spread like wildfire, we (about 150 years after his death) look to his stereotype, as the only source of “cultured” music worth listening to.

The trouble, as is easy to guess, is that social classes are not only not dead (i.e., communism only whitewashed facades and fattened oligarchs) but have put down deep roots, especially socio-culturally. By this, I do not mean that the nineteenth-century workers were educated; on the contrary, likely, the bourgeoisie did not care much for culture either, but the problem is that if the “Paganini” of the piano considered the elites of the time as deleterious, today he would end up taking refuge in a Pacific atoll in order not to realize how obtuse and short-sighted evolution has been.

Because evolution has (inevitably) taken place, and we have already talked about the dominance gained by pop music, one has to ask: Is this really what Listz so desired? He often spoke of “musical progress,” marking with as much emphasis as possible the ever-changing reality to which art had to relate. He observed the birth and growth of an industrial society, where the strong powers were not the aristocrats but lay like lapdogs at the feet of bankers and captains of industry.

When it is a composer from the past who sees the future

In other words, Franz Liszt understood two basic things well: first, that music lovers were no longer to be sought within the drawing rooms, and second, that music not palatable to the working-class and lower-middle-class masses was doomed to fail its purpose. Reading the theater programs in 2024, we can undoubtedly say, “Poor deluded!”

Not only did his idea drift further and further away from “consumer” music (the kind he wished for when he hoped the songs would be sung by workers, office workers, and managers), but it also foundered against much sharper rocks. If Liszt saw the marriage of music and poetry as the crowning glory of an artistic endeavor aimed at representing society in a comprehensive and, above all, engaging way, we might ask what became of his purpose and wish.

The answer is at least as simple as the result: pop music has taken the place that the “great” composers guarded, while a parallel branch, with the features of an Egyptian mummy, has crystallized in a pose that recalls a perennial déjà-vu. Truncated by an inflated nothingness like Zeppelin, artistic directors of theaters and conductors of related orchestras announce with smiles that they will usher in the new symphonic year with Schumann’s music.

So much for the intentions of poor Liszt, who wanted mass dissemination, the breaking down of all elitist boundaries, the representation of popular culture, and so on! While Spotify broadcasts music written the day before, they, in fancy dress, sing (rightly) the praises of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart, oblivious to the fact that some 200 years have passed since their last work.

Group of people at a pop music concert
Stadiums can become the new concert halls as long as music and poetry regain their strength and merge into an increasingly strong and inescapable bond.

Evolving arts versus “corpse” music

Does it mean that they must fall into oblivion? Never! This would be silly before it is even irreverent. It is as if Picasso had overshadowed Michelangelo or Raphael, De Chirico had made people forget Giotto, or Pirandello had ridiculed Boccaccio or Shakespeare. But after this slew of comparisons, a question timidly arises: why is Picasso held in such high regard? Why is the prose play “Six Characters in Search of an Author” considered a masterpiece? Why is Frank Lloyd Wright’s “House on the Waterfall” hailed on par (or nearly so) with St. Peter’s dome?

Interesting questions, aren’t they? The usual consequence is to ask, why, in music, is Bob Dylan considered a dwarf in front of Schubert? Why is Morricone, much actually treated as a film composer, charming, but who cannot hold a candle to Mahler? In short, why did all the arts follow Franz Liszt’s invitation and “cultured” music, the first recipient of his words, self-segregate into a museum of anatomy and paleontology?

I believe the reason is simple. “Popular” music has followed the course of events, updated itself continuously, experimenting and constantly seeking new ways of expression. In a sense, Liszt’s hope of hearing the songs among the crowds of workers was crowned. But then, why complain? Unfortunately, the composer does not clarify that the marriage of music and poetry must marry musical engagement with poetic engagement. “Commitment,” meaning the pursuit of quality through true spiritual inspiration.

Certainly, this has happened in many cases, especially from a poetic point of view, because several pop and rock song lyrics are dense in content and pleasing to even the most refined palates. Unfortunately, however, the music and many song lyrics at the top of the charts can be classified as examples of the exercise of stupidity! And most seriously, the record industry (analogous to the same society deprecated and condemned by Liszt), in fostering craftsmanship with low pretensions, feeds the so-called”mainstream,” supporting, willy-nilly, the cause of the nostalgics of classicism.

Conclusions

Whose fault is it then (if fault it is)? Certainly, we can immediately exonerate classical and romantic composers, and, in a sense, “pardon” Chopin’s lovers and Haydn’s oratorios. Indeed, there is no reason to blame those who reject the ugly. As I have already had to say, if it is indispensable to find a scapegoat, the only “culprits” are precisely contemporary composers.

So much for Liszt’s rave praise addressed to the Marseillaise! The unhealthy idea of intellectualistic music, chained by conceptions that cannot be decoded without repeated explanation, and the rejection of the”mainstream” have contributed to letting all the romantic virtuoso’s vague ambitions fall into vain. Taylor Swift certainly does not need Caroline Shaw, and the latter can follow her ideas by giving up the luxurious life of rappers who think they are the new Dante Alighieri! In short, no one needs the other in an unparalleled circle of “selfishness.”

We are, therefore, in an impasse that seems to have no way out. Yet the solution is straightforward: poets (please, let’s not call them “lyricists”) could start writing lyrics suitable for music, and, even not imitating the concept of total art advocated by Wagner, pop composers could start restudying harmony and composing music, based yes on modern instruments (with much-appreciated “intromissions” of strings, flutes, harps, etc.), but worthy of being juxtaposed with Schubert’s Lieder or Faurè’s songs.

In short, Franz Liszt’s lesson is elementary: music must be progressive because society is perpetually evolving, and any form of conservatism is not only detrimental but completely unnecessary. In addition, music-goers, as is the case today, are also the people sitting and waiting in barbers’ and hairdressers’ salons, and, to put it bluntly, given the massive difference in numbers, it is precisely the latter who should be the privileged recipients of good music, not just those who pay for tickets to sit in half-empty concert halls listening to Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets.

Never forget the past, then, and never think that Bach or Mozart wrote perishable music. But time can neither be stopped nor slowed down, so let us try to follow Listz’s example and stop compartmentalizing for “connoisseurs.” Far too many works of art (for connoisseurs) rot in museum cellars. It is high time to avoid such waste and not let the industry dictate its standards because usability is not birthed by triviality but sheer quality art!

Brief biographical note on Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886), Hungarian composer, virtuoso pianist, and conductor, was one of the most influential musicians of the Romantic era. Liszt’s major musical contributions include his innovative piano compositions that expanded the boundaries of progressions and traditional harmonic forms. His works, such as the “Transcendental Studies” and “Hungarian Rhapsodies,” are known for their technical brilliance and emotional depth.

Apart from his musical genius, Liszt was also a key figure in developing the symphonic poem, a form in which a non-musical work, such as a poem or painting inspire a piece of instrumental music. Liszt’s symphonic poems, such as “Les Preludes” and “Mazeppa,” showcased his ability to evoke vivid images and narratives through music.

Stamp issued in Germany (GDR) in 1961 to celebrate composers Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz
A stamp was issued in Germany (GDR) in 1961 to celebrate the composers Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) and Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869). The two had an intense relationship, and Liszt, a lover of program music, found in Berlioz a perfect example of how musical art could evolve.

In addition to his musical contributions, Liszt was known for his philosophical works on music and art. He championed the idea of “program music,” in which instrumental music conveys a narrative or extra-musical idea, paving the way for composers such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Franz Liszt’s legacy as a composer, pianist, and thinker continues to influence musicians and music lovers worldwide.


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Twilight of the gods: why pop music is so darn corny

5 Deutschmark coin dedicated to Felix Mendelssohn
Five Deutschmark coin dedicated to Berlin composer Felix Mendelssohn. A tribute to German romantic music.

Back to the Future Part I

Imagine taking a trip back in time, 200 years, to be precise, and moving to Berlin. With a bit of patience, suppose you walk unseen into the studio of Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847), whose eclecticism ranged from composing music, conducting, painting, and, not least, administering a concert hall.

You might witness the scene: Mendelssohn paces up and down the room, speaking in a thundering voice to two collaborators, “The audience is demanding new music!” the composer vehemently exclaims while his friends nod their heads. Yes, because amid the Romantic era, whether it seems strange to you or not, people were tired of hearing the same operas repeatedly, and impresarios’ investments risked being dry losses.

At a time when there were no recordings, to hear a symphony, it was necessary to have an orchestra. People were tired. How can you blame them? Who wouldn’t be? “We?” shouts the crowd (ed. I am optimistic about readers), “Certainly,” I would answer without hesitation. If we pick up the 1.21 GW time machine and return to the present, we can do a simple experiment.

Back to the Future Part II

One only needs to open Spotify and Apple Music (Classical) to find that, for example, there are about 630 recordings of Beethoven’s 9th. If we then consider all the unrecorded performances, the number could become so large that it could be said that, from Beethova’s departure to the present, her memory has been honored by “celebrating” a ritual based on her music regularly every week!

It is enough to put together Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, etc., to arrive without much effort at a non-stop that goes on with more than religious regularity. So much for new music! We live in the age of immutability, where theaters and concert halls are more properly museums housing mummies of all shapes and sizes. Of the cemeteries, it is always November 2, and the slurry of prayers rises to the imperishable memory of the totally unknown deceased.

The Trial (without Kafka)

But far be it from me to point fingers indiscriminately! Therefore, I ask myself, “Who are the culprits in this?” The conductors? Indeed, a large cohort of them are dead-tongued cultists who enjoy, like children announcing that for the opening of the musical year, they will be conducting Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, and it matters little if those who are going to hear it (at least, a small portion amid a crowd of model gougers who want to parade down the catwalk) know it by heart and, if they want to, can find hundreds of recordings in the comfort of their own homes.

But the fault does not lie solely with the conductors. I am convinced that many of them think just as I do. Then who to center in the crosshairs? Artistic directors? In a sense, the latter might well be candidates for the role of managers, were it not for force majeure reasons that they are forced to obey willy-nilly. If, by chance, it should occur to one of them to open the concert season with Tōru Takemitsu or Arnold Bax, immediately a profit and loss account in the red would materialize before their eyes!

Yes, because if the people of the Romantic period (and beyond) longed for new music, today’s so-called music lovers do not like surprises. They are ready to spend tens of euros to listen again to the symphony of destiny (i.e., Beethoven’s Fifth), but they would think, “Paying for these strangers? Maybe it’s not worth it“. November 2 is welcome; Christmas is always a bit risky, far too much for Puritans.

Rehearsal of a small orchestra conducted by contemporary music composer Tōru Takemitsu
Rehearsals of a small orchestra conducted by contemporary music composer Tōru Takemitsu (1930 – 1996).

Revenge is a record that needs to be played fast!

But reality is not consumed in this analysis; on the contrary, it displays a bizarreness that transcends any creative effort. If so-called (mistakenly) “cultured music” is as stagnant as a swamp where mosquitoes feast day and night, its “pop” counterpart lives and reigns in an uninterrupted succession of productions.

Oh yes, because if you thought the desire for new music had disappeared, dear friends, you were only deluding yourself. It is not only alive but is even more fierce than before. It is so fierce that it motivates many musicians to churn out new songs with every blink of an eye. With rocket-to-hydrazine acceleration, “pop” music (a deliberately collective term) has given birth to far more music from 1900 to the present than composed from the late Middle Ages to late Romanticism.

And so, if renowned concert halls continued to honor the dead with heartfelt devotion, stadiums became ecosystems where every form of living species increased with the rhythm of rabbits. “But then the problem is solved!” an incurable optimist might exclaim, and, to me, today it’s my turn to dampen spirits as well. No, the problem is not solved; it has become even more severe.

Gods and minstrels

The reason for my disappointment stems from a simple observation: so-called “pop” music is damned banal! We could also say that he paid for his vitality with whole layers of cerebral cortex. If you get used to listening to Beethoven (to mention the most-played composer ever), pop songs resemble coitus interruptus. They possess all the characteristics: catchy and singable motifs, rhythms marked by the ubiquitous drums, voices whose timbres have finally been unleashed and removed from the yoke of classical lyricism, and? A missed orgasm.

When everything seems ready to explode in a pyrotechnic development, the last refrain marks the premature end of the relationship. To hell with Beethoven and his majestic art of elaboration! All it takes is a singable melody over a harmonic rug (generally so simple that legions of strummers gaudy ape). Why complicate life? Well, I would say that, first of all, it’s because the composers don’t know how to do it! Second, because industrial standardization wants to sell songs like fast-food sandwiches.

Will texts save the world?

“But the lyrics are beautiful!” shouts the ecstatic crowd as if listening to a Schubert Lied. Then again, the bar was not lowered. It’s been taken out of the way! Triviality must have no boundaries: all too simple music must be matched by equally meaningless lyrics.

To no avail was the lesson of Fabrizio De Andrè, who composed dozens and dozens of songs that were all different. “Beautiful!” the crowd shouts, except to dissolve the moment someone should shyly ask what “Canzone del padre” (ed. “Father’s Song”) means. That is a territory where it is better not to set foot, too complicated, hermetic, esoteric, cryptic, crazy, …, you go ahead. Much better was the late Micheal Jackson setting a stadium (and his bank account) ablaze by repeating like a sick, obsessive-compulsive “Annie, are you okay?

I would thunder, “Hell yes! I’m fine, now continue the song!” but this is not part of the social dynamics that hold up the whole scaffolding. As mentioned above, pop music must be mundane; otherwise, one risks an untimely death and the bitter discovery that curators of Egyptian concert hall museums have waiting lists too long to hope for an audition.

Poster of a concert by musician Marya Delvard featuring lieder by author Marc Henry. Lieder music was always highly sought after, but, in a way it can be considered the ancestor of modern song.
Poster of a concert by musician Marya Delvard (1874 – 1965) based on lieder by author Marc Henry. Lieder music was always highly sought after, but, in a way, it can be considered the ancestor of modern song.

The trial resumes, the court enters.

But is there a person in charge who can at least help us justify this phenomenon? I think so, but I leave it to my (Manzoni, do not be offended, but I hope more than twenty-five) readers will analyze reality and come to their conclusions. As I have already highlighted in other articles, “cultured” music faced a chasm after the late Romanticism.

With questionable motives, many composers suddenly discovered that poor Debussy was covered in cobwebs and that Stravinsky was just a visionary madman prey to a nostalgia that needed to be treated in an asylum. Yes, it is true that the French composer had experimented with hexatonal scales and was seduced by jazz and ragtime, but how do we forgive the severe fault of still referring to tonality?

In an era marked by unspeakable horrors (the two world wars, the rise of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany, the extermination of the Jews, etc.), one soon concluded that if art was to represent reality. Reality is also ugly (how can one deny that?). One could infer that art should be able to “steal” some of the horror of history and make it its own.

Of course, this pseudo-syllogism is all too simple. What does it mean that music must also be able to be ugly? An aesthetically ugly work of art deserves no further analysis. Is this then the meaning pursued by the composers? Certainly not. Without getting into very technical territories, it can be said that if “classical” harmony demanded that dissonances be resolved into consonant chords (i.e., were moments of transient tension), the theorists of the new music extolled the emancipation of dissonance as an entity that does not need to fade into something else.

Yet Bach, a few centuries earlier, Bach had extensively used chromaticism (i.e., notes outside the key) and dissonance (including the infamous tritone – diabolus in music). He certainly had not gone to too much trouble to modulate either gradually (i.e., by following the circle of fifths) or by jumping flatly from one tonality to another (e.g., in the D minor Chaconne of the second violin partita, the middle part begins candidly in D major). So, why so much eagerness to abolish tonality?

Frankly, I don’t know. The only thing sure is that this choice served only to free itself from a cage, whose bars were so broad as to let elephants walk, to lock itself up in a labyrinthine set of techniques that, as the composers’ shyness faded, even came to use combinatorial mathematical techniques, I Ching reading and, who knows, even raffle number draws.

Original Chinese version of I Ching
An original Chinese version of I Ching, a divination book, was used by John Cage (1912 – 1992) to compose his experimental music.

Come on, people, it’s off to experiment!

Not satisfied with an already difficult enough choice to manage, many composers (while the pop music war raged in the East) decided to expand their genius through an idolization of conceptual-intellectualistic music. In Darmstadt, Germany, and at RAI’s phonology studio (ed. RAI is the national Italian Television), there have been high-sounding names (Stockhausen, Berg, Kagel, Nono, Berio, Maderna, etc.) whose notoriety, however, fades day by day, like those posters left at the mercy of sun and rain.

City noises, screaming, hissing, “broken” quartets with musicians forced to play in the cabins of as many helicopters in flight, and a fierce use of all sorts of electronic instruments, from synthesizers to wave generators, etc., made it possible to mold an impressive amount of works whose common characteristic is only one: the public did not like them. I would like, in this regard, to know your opinion.

To make a long story short, “cultured” music has been amputated outright, demanding that fans of Satie and Puccini willingly accept this extraordinary new creativity. But alas, things did not go as planned. Artistic directors, often enthusiastic, once again ran up against the bottom line, discovering (perhaps, reluctantly) that Berio’s sublime sequences were grossing little more than they needed to offer free peanuts at the buvette.

People skinned their hands applauding Beethoven’s 9th for the umpteenth time but were bored listening to experimental music. Ignorance? Insensitivity? I don’t know. What is certain is that aesthetics leaves no survivors. “If I’m going to listen to a synthesizer used poorly to boot, I much prefer the din of pop music!

Of course. The reasoning does not make a wrinkle. Why be masochistic when pop singers can offer a refreshing listen that even an illiterate person understands perfectly? We have, therefore, come to the crux of the matter. Pop music is mundane, without development, based on first-grade harmonic progressions (with exceptions such as jazz, which often exaggerates in the opposite direction). Still, it gives more satisfaction than music that has traded the adjective “cultured” for “mindless.”

The Arabian phoenix in a performance by Friedrich J. Bertuch. Just like the phoenix,
The Arabian phoenix in a depiction by Friedrich J. Bertuch (1747 – 1822). According to mythology, the phoenix could always rise from its ashes.

Can “cultured” music rise from its ashes?

I want to end this article on an optimistic note. I am convinced that it is possible to finally hear contemporary music combining pop’s engaging power with the technical structuring of a Beethoven sonata. But to do so, considerable effort is required, not so much from a compositional point of view, but more importantly from an economic-managerial point of view.

With the same “flamboyance” as Stockhausen & co, it is possible to compose, for example, contemporary versions of Bach’s cantatas. That is, instead of ending a song (the theme of which may also be worthy of praise) after three minutes, a first part can be interspersed with an instrumental interlude based on real elaborations of the themes (again, Beethoven rules), followed perhaps by a small chorale (polyphonic, why not? After all, “We are the world” has been at the top of the worldwide hit parades), and then, perhaps, close, with another song based on a reworking of the opening theme. All of this, of course, is accompanied by meticulously crafted lyrics, not gut-wrenching love nonsense.

In short, contemporary music has all the makings of satisfying the Romantics’ eagerness for novelty by pursuing quality at the expense of quantity. The only “small” problem to be solved is to depower the industrial “assembly line” ideals to revive the more “artisanal” lines of thought that, in their genuineness, preserve the unbreakable seed of true art and are looking for nothing more than good soil where they can plant it to make it grow lushly!


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Truths, myths, and fantasies about Segovia: a short journey through the notes of classical guitar

Andrés Segovia (1893 – 1987) was unquestionably one of the greatest and most influential musicians of the last century, devoted wholeheartedly to the dissemination of the classical guitar, and, as is often the case in such cases, his fame has become multifaceted, enriched by legends, false attributions and an almost blinding mythologizing, which has made it extremely difficult for many users of his music to exercise critical activity.

In this article, I wish to highlight some peculiar aspects of Segovian work and, at the same time, try to demolish some of the most unfounded myths. As a classical guitarist, I cannot tolerate the spread of superficial and false judgments that permanently harm the music, too. Only by being frank can Segovia be restored to his rightful place and prevent completely wrong ideas from taking hold without anyone working to correct them.

Andrés Segovia while playing at the Alhambra palace in Granada
Andrés Segovia while playing at the Alhambra Palace in Granada (a complete film is also available).

Segovia and the musical heritage for guitar

The first thesis I would like to highlight concerns a judgment I have often encountered: “Segovia is the father of the (classical) guitar as a noble instrument.” First of all, I would like to point out that, in my opinion, talking about noble and plebeian instruments is undoubtedly not an excellent way to start a discussion. Various composers of the caliber of Beethoven and Mahler “ennobled” all sorts of instruments, including them in their symphonies to achieve particular timbres that traditional ensembles did not contemplate.

But even if we accept the juxtaposition between widespread and concert use of the guitar, the problem remains with the veracity of the above statement. Suffraging it lightly is, in fact, not only dangerous to the history of music but also unfair to a variety of composers who devoted their lives to the guitar.

While it is true that this marvelous instrument, given its flexibility, became extremely popular in not overly cultured circles, this does not detract from the fact that, between the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were properly “cultured” musicians who published methods, progressive studies, concert studies, sonatas, concertos, etc.

Fernando Sor, Dionisio Aguado, Mauro Giuliani, Ferdinando Carulli, Matteo Carcassi, Francisco Tarrega, etc., are key players in the flourishing of the guitar during the Romantic period. If we also add Niccolò Paganini (yes, the violinist), who loved the guitar, practiced on it, and composed dozens and dozens of concert sonatas, I think it is pretty clear that before 1893, the year of Segovia’s birth, the guitar scene was already very well nourished.

Francisco Tarrega while playing the guitar in the traditional classical setting.
Francisco Tarrega (1852 – 1909) while playing the guitar in the traditional classical setting.

So why do people close their eyes to the evidence and think all the credit goes to the master? While also based on some deductions, the response breaks a lance in favor of Segovia’s hosannas.

The fate of the guitar during and after Romanticism

To begin with, a clarification should be made: the guitar, like many other instruments (piano, primarily), has not always existed in its current conformation. On the contrary, it has undergone numerous changes based on the expressive needs that musicians demanded.

Without doing a historical reconstruction that is beyond the scope of this article, I can say right away that the most famous ancestor of the guitar is one of the most famous Renaissance and Baroque instruments (especially during the early period): the lute. It was not only, to all intents and purposes, a “noble” instrument but also allowed a vast literature of early music to reach us, which nowadays, despite the existence of numerous lutenists, finds its most natural place in the guitar.

The works, to give an example, of Luis de Milán, John Dowland, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, and, most importantly, Johann Sebastian Bach (even if some of them are arrangements of violin partitas made by the computer itself, e.g., BWV 1006a) provide guitarists with a heritage of the highest quality that can only help to ennoble this fascinating instrument and enrich the concert repertoire with characteristic musicality that can captivate even those who do not have a thorough knowledge of the historical period.

Lady playing a lute, in a 1530 painting attributed to the school of Bartolomeo Veneto
Lady playing a lute in a 1530 painting attributed to the school of Bartolomeo Veneto.

However, Romanticism, a period that, albeit eventually, saw Segovia’s birth, elected the piano as the instrument par excellence. Dozens of more or less famous composers traveled to Paris to compose and try to disseminate their works. I am not referring to the likes of Chopin, who seemed destined for the piano from the cradle, but to composers like Albéniz, who, from Spain, came to the French capital and, while eager to “export” the musicality of their homeland, chose the piano without a second thought.

Albéniz’s celebrated suite espanola (containing well-known pieces in the guitar realm as Asturias – Leyenda or Sevilla) was written for the keyboard instrument. However, it contains solid references to the guitar. It is no accident that transcriptions of the suite have become so widespread that many pieces seem to have originated for guitar. Suppose an arrangement of a Chopin nocturne is always a gamble. In that case, Asturias’ guitar version (I say this without hesitation) is musically more “accomplished” on the guitar (where, in particular, the opening and closing arpeggios spread out like a dusky-toned carpet) than on the piano.

From that background, Segovia found himself with an instrument of endless possibilities and a dominant culture that seemed blinded by ebony and ivory keys. There was a very substantial literature of quality works (e.g., Giuliani’s Rossiniane, Sor’s Gran Solo, and, no doubt, many Paganini sonatas), but what Segovia felt was a distinct lack of continuity. Indeed, his present seemed to have transposed the guitar to domains increasingly distant from the grand stages of theaters and, simultaneously, increasingly immersed in the noisy atmospheres of bars and taverns.

Another not minor fact was related to the spread of pop music (hated by Segovia): if the piano had been the stronghold of the Romantics, the guitar (especially in its acoustic versions with metal and electric strings) was gaining a foothold in blues music, jazz, etc. and, a little later, would also become the quintessential instrument of rock music.

It is not strange then that after developing an overpowering technique based on an extraordinary timbral sampler, Segovia faced a far more long-standing problem. While he did not despise the existing literature (although his judgments were often affected by various idiosyncrasies), he understood it was almost impossible to hold a concert in a large hall in Paris or New York with only that repertoire. What the guitar lacked was compositional continuity from “educated” musicians.

For this reason, he began requesting new compositions and transcribing works that, according to his taste, could fit nicely on the guitar. In that sense, it must be said that his work was remarkable and certainly worthy of praise. Despite his somewhat rigid mindset, he was able to persuade several composers to write new music for the guitar, thus, in a short time, enriching the stock available to concertgoers.

Program of a 1935 guitar concert by Andrés Segovia
Program of a 1935 concert by Andrés Segovia

It is also true that his less-than-easy character (paradigmatic is the case of his relationship with Barrios, whom he unsuccessfully asked to dedicate to him the sonata “La Catedral” and which, out of spite, he decided not only not to play but also to discredit with all his students) and his lack of interest in atonal experiments (which were becoming increasingly popular) led him to isolate altogether many works that would only be rediscovered later, but this does not detract from the fact that without his efforts, the classical guitar would never have taken off again.

Segovia and guitar technique

Another controversial aspect concerns the guitar technique. In this sense, it should be clarified that Segovia did not invent anything dramatically different from what had already been established. In the nineteenth century, composers such as Aguado and Sor published their methods, explaining the fundamentals of the technique, even giving rise to a diatribe over fingernails (Aguado was in favor, while Sor preferred “bare” fingertips).

Detail of Segovia's right hand
Detail of Segovia’s right hand. Note the protruding fingernails, short enough to allow the rope to slide over the fingertip.

What Segovia did was to study such fundamentals and “discover” elements that, on paper, could only be described in a very sketchy way. In particular, the most outstanding merit was related to timbre research. He understood that the best results could be achieved with relatively short nails, such that the strings could be struck but, at the same time, soften the touch, if necessary, with the fingertip. In addition, Segovia developed a keen ability to move his right hand from the pit to the bridge to achieve rapid timbral changes.

His distinctive sound (an average ear recognizes it immediately) resulted from several factors that stemmed not from technique per se but from exploring the possibilities offered by the instrument. It is, therefore, inaccurate to attribute to Segovia elements of setting already found in earlier musicians. Still, it is correct (on the assumption that there are no recordings of Sor or Giuliani) to say that his emphasis on timbre was a distinctive element that contributed significantly to his worldwide success.

In addition, Segovia welcomed the proposal to use nylon strings (“bare” for the treble three and metal coated for the bass). This new “configuration” allowed him to increase the timbral range of the guitar with a “vertical” differentiation (the bass voices already sounded darker, while the treble was brighter) that proved exceptionally fruitful, especially in the performance of polyphonic music (e.g., Bach or Scarlatti).

The Segovia School and the “Segovians”

A key chapter in Segovia’s life concerns his teaching activities. Although he never taught permanently in a conservatory, the master often held master classes where some of the most famous guitarists trained (e.g., Julian Bream, John Williams, Eliot Fisk, Cristopher Parkening, Oscar Ghiglia, etc.). Is it then correct to speak of a lineup of “segovians”?

In my opinion, there is nothing more wrong. This is one of the most rugged and dangerous territories to tackle, but I will try to summarize my ideas. Segovia imparted his interpretive ideas to his students, helping them achieve articulation that exploited the guitar’s full potential. However, none of his most distinguished pupils developed an imitative style, neither in terms of sonority nor even in terms of repertoire.

One only has to listen to Bream or Williams to realize immediately that their playing is “unique” and not based on a slavish study of their master’s way of experiencing. In other words, using a metaphor, we can say that Segovia was more of a spark than an actual explosion. The sharpest students learned how to achieve the same richness as their teacher, but they followed the most pleasant path. They were, that is, “segovian,” but not at all segovian (I hope the instrumental use of quotation marks is straightforward).

Julian Bream, one of the greatest contemporary guitarists
Julian Bream (1933 – 2020) was one of the greatest contemporary guitarists and “favorite” pupil of Segovia.

Unfortunately, while the most talented have been able to enhance the ideas with the right critical spirit, a large group of pseudo-Segovians have begun to “ape” Segovia, focusing mainly on two elements: repertoire and technique. In the first case, the result was a flattening of guitar interpretive production (in a sense, the opposite of what the master desired), with programs that repeatedly seemed to be printed with the same cliché. In the second, you completely misrepresented the teaching of Aguado, Sor, Giuliani, etc., and transited through Segovia, going so far as to hail the most unbearable pedantry.

There are dozens and dozens of guitarists (including yours truly) ready to tell how they spent months of lessons millimetrically adding hand position, reducing or increasing back arching, and so on. All this, as useless as it was harmful, resulted from an attempt at imitation devoid of logical meaning. Instead of systematizing technical concepts cum grano salis, they often preferred to take refuge in a dullness that was indisposed, making central, not music, but a form of postural gymnastics.

Summary biographical note

Andrés Segovia, born Feb. 21, 1893, in Linares, Jaén, Spain, was a legendary classical guitarist and composer (although, in reality, his output was limited to a few studies). He is widely considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time and played a significant role in elevating the guitar to a respected classical instrument.

Segovia began playing the guitar at a young age and quickly demonstrated exceptional talent. He received his formal music education at the School of Fine Arts in Granada and later at the Royal Conservatory of Madrid. Despite initial skepticism from traditionalists who believed that the guitar was not suitable for classical music, Segovia’s dedication and perseverance led him to become a pioneer for this instrument.

Throughout his career, Segovia toured extensively, captivating audiences worldwide with his virtuosic performances and unique interpretations of classical, baroque, and contemporary compositions. His exceptional technique, timbre, and playing style set new standards for guitarists worldwide, spawning a generation of “followers” who drew inspiration from his relating to the instrument.

In addition to his extraordinary performing career, Segovia was instrumental in expanding the classical guitar repertoire. He has collaborated with renowned composers such as Manuel Ponce, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Heitor Villa-Lobos, inspiring them to write music specifically for the guitar. Segovia also transcribed and arranged numerous pieces initially composed for other instruments, demonstrating the versatility and capabilities of the guitar.

Segovia’s influence on the classical guitar extended beyond his performances and compositions. He devoted his life to promoting the artistic and educational value of the instrument. He has organized master classes, taught countless students, and written instructional books that have become essential resources for guitarists.

Andrés Segovia’s contribution to the guitar has earned him numerous awards and honors, including honorary doctorates, knighthoods, and the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. His legacy inspires generations of guitarists, and his recordings remain prized classics in the classical music world.

Andrés Segovia died June 2, 1987, in Madrid, Spain, leaving a profound mark on the guitar world. His dedication, passion, and transformative influence have solidified his place as a true legend in classical guitar.

Segovia obituary on the front page of the New York Times. Photo shows the maestro playing at a solo guitar concert
The obituary of Andrès Segovia is on the front page of the New York Times.

Conclusions

Talking about Segovia requires a lot of space, and one cannot focus on all aspects of his art. My goal was to address some elements that have too often been misunderstood or misinterpreted. I will undoubtedly return to write articles regarding his style concerning specific composers, focusing more on the essential details.

For now, I can only invite all music lovers to listen to Segovia’s varied recordings, enjoy his extraordinary timbre, and ultimately appreciate the work done to enhance the guitar far beyond all possible expectations.

Of course, I will gladly answer your questions and comments so that the master’s memory remains alive. Beyond the fact that many of his most faithful pupils have perhaps (as is usual) surpassed their mentor, this does not imply that his interpretations should fall into oblivion. Every guitarist should listen to him, possibly together with Williams, Fisk, Bream, etc., precisely to broaden one’s horizons and to be able to grasp all those nuances that make the guitar a wonderful (and who knows, unparalleled) musical instrument!

I also want to share the Spotify playlist with many of Segovia’s recordings so you can immediately start enjoying them:


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Poetic punctuation: music and Ungaretti’s hermeticism

“It is my heart
the most torn country.” (G. Ungaretti)

Why is it unimaginable to have music without time indications (time statement, note duration, pauses, etc.)? Even the most bizarre avant-gardes and experiments have always (and rightly, I would say) used all that information necessary to determine the rhythm, dynamics, and sometimes even the timbre of individual notes or entire chords.

A picture of a musical score. The information of tempo, rhythm, melody and harmony form an inseparable whole in music
An example of a musical score. The information on tempo, rhythm, melody harmony, etc. They form an inseparable whole.

In principle (incorrect – with good grace from Hanslick), the “semantic” content of music is expressed primarily by the pitch of the notes and their succession, so anyone equipped with a decoding system should be able to access the meaning of a musical production simply by evaluating the sequence of frequencies the composer intended to represent.

Before discussing the obvious reasons why this assumption is trivially unacceptable, I would like to make a kind of counter-example to support this thesis. If we take, for example, the Prelude from Bach’s Partita for Violin/Lute Suite BWV 1006(a), we immediately notice that, apart from a couple of opening bars and a couple of closing bars, the entire composition, in ¾ ternary rhythm, is based on bars composed of three groups of four semiquavers.

In practice, the “formal” rhythm (not the interpretive rhythm-which, even though it is a Baroque composition, always possesses a certain freedom) is “flat”: the interpreter, on first readings, can proceed without thinking all that much. The metronome beats a monotonous rhythm, and with each beat, a note corresponds. In this case, by necessity, the only factual information (strictly speaking) is provided solely by the pitches of the sounds (and a few rare dynamic indications). Something similar, but opposite, is the experiment of the symphonic poem for 100 metronomes by G. Ligeti (1923 – 2006).

Music is inconceivable outside of an ad hoc syntactic context.

Of course, this argument is entirely fallacious for several reasons. The first is obvious: complete information must, by necessity, consider all the elements given in the score. Tempo, rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, timbre, and, of course, all sorts of interpretive indications (e.g., cantabile, with emphasis, sforzando, etc.) form an inseparable whole, which alone deserves the appellation “musical composition.” Removing one or more of these elements can only result in an unacceptable alteration that often makes execution impossible.

The second reason, which is more philosophical and speculative, is that music (as well as poetry and fiction) does not exist in “pure space” (unless one considers the vibrational effect static-a condition feasible in mathematics, certainly not in nature) but instead in a dimension that is perceptually referred to as “time” (or, instead, in the conjunction of space and time). In the Italian essay “Il dispiegarsi del tempo psicologico” (ed. “The Unfolding of Psychological Time”) written a few years ago, I tried to evaluate a hypothesis of why humans “feel” the flow of time. Still, here I prefer to refer to the philosophical hypothesis theorized by P.D. Ouspensky (1878 – 1947) in his famous book “Tertium Organum.”

In this sense, time is the effect of a limitation of man’s phenomenal perceptual apparatus, which, restricted by three-dimensional space, is forced to “dilute” the fourth dimension into a sequence of three-dimensional blocks. Any phenomenon, whose noumenon thus transcends the stasis of a materialistic perception, must necessarily also develop in time and, in that process, expand its boundaries to a place where efforts make us glimpse something but never quite grasp it.

Time, expressed in a graphical, structured form, is therefore “sine qua non” not only of musical interpretation (the semantics of which rests its proper foundations on the articulation of frequency sequences- time for all intents and purposes) but also of all forms of communication where the goal extends beyond the mere transmission of information functional to the phenomenal sphere alone.

Theoretical construction of a hypercube
Theoretical construction of a hypercube (or Tesseract if in 4D). Human beings have a perceptual apparatus that cannot “see” beyond the third dimension. However, mathematics can deal with multidimensional spaces (even with infinite dimensions) without any problem.

Poetry, like music, pushes its targets toward the conscious perception of noumena hidden in seemingly illogical, unstructured, and sometimes even difficult-to-understand forms of expression. Listing in succession the words that make up the lines of a lyric (as, at the limit, one might do with prose) without any line breaks or punctuation marks amounts to all intents and purposes to the dimensional flattening of the composition, with the obvious consequence of “lowering” the “target” level, from the human that transcends to the infinite, to that of creatures limited to a two-dimensional knowledge that, at most, can let one imagine solid forms just as humans think of hyperspaces (of four or more dimensions).

Poetic punctuation as a semantic vehicle

This dutiful premise, however long, is indispensable to clarify the metaphysical role that punctuation plays in the poetic sphere, with a particular emphasis on the figure of Ungaretti (1888 – 1970): grammar and syntax can be assimilated into pure space that, through chromatic and structural elaboration, allows the fruition of the first three dimensions to be saturated, while the role of punctuation marks becomes the only tool capable of encoding time as an actual fourth dimension.

Suppose in prose, for example, the separation between subject and predicate made with a comma is considered an error in poetry. In that case, it can only leave an enormous space for interpreting the relationship between the subject and the action–physical or immaterial–being performed. The forced pause becomes an instrument of emphasis. In this imaginary place, the reader can place the expansion of his or her own emotions, concreating the meaning that the poet himself or herself has “dispersed” between the meshes of his or her verses.

Portrait of Giuseppe Ungaretti
Portrait of Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888 – 1970), the leading Italian exponent of poetic hermeticism.

Then again, even the use of different lines is aimed at often creating a disconnect between two components whose “liaison” can only be found in pure transcendence to a dimension phenomenally precluded to us. To fully understand this aspect of poetic creation, one only needs to read one of Ungaretti’s most famous and hermetic poems, “Mattina” (ed. “Morning”). For an anthology based on the poet’s most important poetry works, I recommend the book “Selected Poems“):

I illuminate me
of immensity.

The first verse is itself self-sufficient: the subject (which is and is not Ungaretti himself) implicitly declares himself and affirms his tendency to expand his perception through a process of “illumination”; moreover, the latter reality implies an object “standard,” light, the acquisition of which is precisely called “illumination.” But the poet does not wish to communicate only one of his perceptions: he wants the reader to begin to experience the effect of light on himself and thus prepare himself to understand the symbolism hidden in this concept: the immensity, the infinity, the unboundedness noumeni That only light, with its ephemeral elusiveness, can represent.

The separation in verse, therefore, “expands” the scope of action, transforming a delightful but unnecessarily devoid of concreteness phrase (“I shine brightly“) into a springboard that opens the doors of perception and lets the ego fully empathize with the light, pervasive and indestructible, before “exploding” into immensity, just like the”Ain” Kabbalistic ” (a concept assimilated to nothingness) became “Ain Sof” (i.e., the end of nothingness), transforming potentiality into the beginning of the whole creation.

Similar considerations are possible for another hermetic masterpiece by Ungaretti, the poem “Soldati” (ed. “Soldiers”)

We are as
leaves
in Autumn
on the trees

Again, the only non-linguistic information is the verse division. However, in what seems a trivial subdivision lies the more profound and poignant nature of Ungaretti’s poetry. The semantic content could remain unchanged if the lines were concatenated into a sentence, but the poet does not wish to write an aphorism. The incipit “It is like” strongly implies an existential condition of forced stasis. The impersonality, coupled with the use of the preposition “as,” creates determines a clear semantic context, a stark opening to a scenario where men, like puppets forced into unnatural positions, “stand” without even attempting to rebel (an act that would certainly be in vain).

The other verses show the same poignancy and even manage, with a very apt “rhythmic” choice, to place all the emphasis now on one aspect and, immediately after, on another, creating an interconnection where the individual elements yield nothing to the context, but contribute to its structuring without distorting themselves in any way. The second verse (“in autumn”) is similar to an isolated chord that hovers in the air and remains suspended, just like an autumn landscape portrayed by an impressionist painter.

Ungaretti weighs every word, every tiny fragment capable of carrying meaning. In this case, “in autumn” is not a simple temporal statement; on the contrary, the poet strongly wishes to emphasize that on par with the being of the first verse, there is also a mode that burdens the condition of passivity. Fall is a terminal season, but it can still make people reflect, turn their backs, and see summer with its joyous squeals. It isn’t kind because it condemns yes to stasis but simultaneously to full awareness.

The last two verses crown the descriptive effort of the first two. Musically speaking, they are like a cadence: after tension, they bring harmony back to a fundamental state. What is precariously static is precisely the leaf, “birthed” by the mother tree, which, after an entire existence spent clinging to the parent with an “umbilical cord” that was never severed, discovers the stark truth. Autumn will bring weaning, separation, and death. Forced into immobility, just like the puppets hiding in the trenches, moved only by the whims of the wind, the leaf slowly withers, yields its green to golden streaks, and increasingly feels the scourge of the air.

Without “punctuation,” Ungaretti marks boundaries to create syntactic and semantic textures. He crosses the boundary of pure formality to a place where academic rules decay to give way to pure perception that cannot be tamed. In that ethereal space, which, at the same time, is so grave and material, he draws with individual linguistic fragments whole landscapes of the soul. He overcomes the barriers of maximalist descriptivism with unparalleled elegance. He manages to create true poetic punctuation precisely through its absence, for, as the great musical performers teach us, it is not the value of a note that determines its genesis and death but the depth of its essence, its uniqueness, and its appearance in a specific space and time.

War in the poetry of Ungaretti

Ungaretti’s poetry constitutes a poignant testimony to the overwhelming impact of war on the human psyche. As a soldier, he experienced firsthand the horrors and brutality of the trenches during World War I. However, his poetic compositions go beyond the simple description of the battlefield; they delve into his emotions and existential condition as a soldier.

In his poetry, Ungaretti masterfully transposes the chaos and anguish of war into vivid images and profound metaphors. Through concise and fragmented verse, he captures life’s fleeting and fragmented nature on the front lines. His words evoke a sense of immediacy and urgency, providing insight into the raw emotions experienced by soldiers.

Italian army troops in a trench during World War I. Ungaretti's poetry was a companion even in those terrible moments.
Italian army troops in a trench during World War I.

Ungaretti’s ability to express the fragility of life in the ruthless context of war is truly remarkable. It explores themes of loss, grief, and despair, reflecting the collective suffering of those caught in the crossfire. His poems become a cathartic release, a way to process his own experiences by giving voice to the countless soldiers who have endured similar hardships.

Through Ungaretti’s unique poetic style, he effectively conveys the human condition in the context of war. His verses bridge the personal and the universal, transcending language barriers and finding resonance among readers from all walks of life. Ungaretti’s poem serves as a powerful reminder of the lasting impact that war has on individuals and society.


Considerations on the concepts of Ain and Ain Soft in the Kabbalah

The concept of “Ain” is Kabbalistic and has significant philosophical implications within Jewish Kabbalah. “Ain” refers to nothingness or nonbeing, representing absolute divine transcendence. It denotes the initial stage of creation in which God’s existence is hidden and incomprehensible to human understanding.

Going beyond “Ain,” the Kabbalah introduces the concept of “Ain Sof,” which means “endless” or “infinite.” This term indicates the infinite nature of God, which encompasses all existence and transcends all limitations. “Ain Sof” represents the divine essence and is the ultimate source of all creation.

The philosophical implications of these concepts are profound. “Ain” emphasizes the metaphysical nature of God, challenging the human intellect to grasp the incomprehensible essence of the divine. It encourages Kabbalah seekers to transcend the physical world’s limits and delve into the depths of spirituality.

Fragment of a Kabbalistic Text
Fragment of a 16th-century Kabbalistic text.

The concept of “Ain Sof” reveals the infinite nature of God, suggesting that every aspect of creation is an expression of the divine. It inspires individuals to recognize the interconnectedness of all things and the divine spark within each being. From this perspective, Kabbalah encourages pursuing spiritual growth and realizing one’s inner divinity.

By exploring the concepts of “Ain” and “Ain Sof” within Jewish Kabbalah, individuals gain insights into the nature of God, the universe, and their spiritual journey. It opens the door to mystical experiences, profound wisdom, and a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all existence. Through study and contemplation, one can discover these Kabbalistic concepts’ hidden truths and philosophical implications. For more information and philosophical-theological details on Jewish Kabbalah, I recommend the book “On The Kabbalah and its Symbolism” by G. Scholem.


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A conductor in the C-suite

What makes a good leader?

people sitting on chairs inside buildingI can make the example of a conductor. Is he a leader? Of course! He is a sort of “borrowed head” for an orchestra. All the musicians are professionals with long experience and don’t need another “head.”

However, they are not playing as soloists but together with dozens of other musicians. Everyone has a score, but it’s limited to the parts an instrument must play. The entire composition’s score is too vast and impractical to be shared.

Therefore, the musicians ask for a coordinator who controls the interaction between different instruments, checks tempo, speed, and volume, and keeps listening to the entire composition. Of course, a good conductor makes specific decisions regarding timbre, the dominance of a set of instruments in a particular part, or, for example, inserting a “rubato” in a phrase while keeping the original tempo in another. He’s an artist himself, not just a mechanical coordinator!

However, all decisions concern the entire orchestra, even when they only affect a few musicians. Remember that the conductor has been designated the leader, and his horizon is always the largest. He has to “take” the entire Symphony and gently bring it to the public.

In the past, this role was usually assigned to the first violin, a poor man who had to play while trying to send messages using his hands. Quite complex, isn’t it? I sincerely can’t imagine the result, and I suppose that good performances were the product of each musician’s hard work more than firm leadership.

Another common problem is that some instruments, e.g., oboes, don’t always play. In each score, there are indications about the number of pause bars before they need to restart playing. Remember, they are alone, and the orchestra expects them to start playing precisely after the end of the last pause bar.

If you have played a Symphony a hundred times, you can probably get rid of some indications: your ears and memory are probably more precise than a metronome. But at the beginning, you need a lot of information! And above all, you must pay the maximum attention to avoid delays or early entrances.

Everything is much easier if the conductor can look in a particular direction (i.e., where the musicians sit) when it’s time to start playing. Maybe he can also use gestures to indicate how the entrance is expected to be (soft, violent, “a tempo,” etc.) In other words, he can simplify the task and maximize the artistic result.

Now, think again about the concept of “head.” Is a musician a mechanical tool? No, he has his head and can make autonomous decisions whenever he wants, but sometimes delegating this task is preferable.

It’s not a pure matter of granting power or donating prestige (the latter is generally a consequence of successful hard work) to an external actor, but rather a rational necessity.

I finish by saying that a good leader is precisely like a good conductor. The greater his musicians are, the greater he can be. His responsibility is to maximize the sum of these values. Otherwise, the first criticism will arise from the orchestra itself.

That’s precisely what happened to Placido Domingo at the Verbier festival. He wasn’t prepared to “borrow his head” to the orchestra, which caused confusion and an abysmal performance.

All the musicians had a working head with solid expertise in their field. They didn’t need someone who screamed or decided to act without caring about the score. Nor did they need a conductor who took for granted that his orchestra would have played well anyway!

They needed a leader to give birth to a unique musical experience. This is a very accurate (if you think about it) example of good leadership that summarizes all the features usually listed in management books.


Photo by Andrea Zanenga


 

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Beethoven’s mind in the silence of his music

Some time ago, I had the pleasure of watching a documentary on Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (whom, from now on, I will call ABM, as was customary in his day), a pianist so shy that he granted only a couple of brief interviews throughout his life. As a result, the documentary had been constructed based more on the testimonies of friends and former students than on the living voice of the teacher.

Foto di Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (ABM) at the piano
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli at the piano

While discussing ABM’s style, an acquaintance reported ABM’s brief statement about studying new compositions. The content was more or less: “Before I play a new Beethoven sonata in public, I need at least six months because first I have to understand what the composer meant by that music.” Indeed, it is a bizarre statement, considering ABM’s talent and extraordinary technical ability.

However, I am interested in analyzing only one part of the statement, specifically when he states, “…what the composer meant.” Although it might seem unnecessary to discuss, the concept implied in such words is quite insidious for both musicology and the philosophy of music. Indeed, several questions arise, the answers far from trivial.

First, clarifying a possible interpretation I believe is wrong is good. That is, ABM meant that he needed a lot of time to understand and interpret the musical material in the best possible way. The reason I discard that assumption is precisely related to the figure of ABM. A pianist of his rank and experience would take a technical and stylistic study for granted before a performance and would hardly use the verb “say.” Perhaps he could point out the interpretive difficulties, the somewhat risky choices, and the wanting or not wanting to respect the cultural-historical context that saw the birth of that score. Still, it would make no sense to emphasize the need to understand what ultimately takes the form of a real message.

So we can move to the second question: is it possible to understand what Beethoven wanted to “say” with his music? To try to answer this, it is good to make a premise. A composition of music that is not entirely absolute may contain semantic elements of a linguistic nature, such as a title or dedication. Such information should, in principle, open the door to more informed interpretation.

For example, not everyone knows that Symphony No. 5 has been subtitled as “symphony of fate”; on the contrary, most people know its main motif, Sol-Sol-Mi bem. Thanks to the information in the subtitle, one concluded that that “tolling” so mighty was nothing more than the sound of fate “knocking at the door” of one’s life. In the various movements, Beethoven reuses those four notes in different tonal, rhythmic, and harmonic contexts to underscore an existential journey that starts from the initial disturbing surprise and moves from rebellion and struggle to a state of quiet acceptance (a condition very dear to the composer, who often went out of his way to emphasize the need to pursue the path of joy and serenity).

What is stated, while likely, remains arbitrary, lacking information to test the hypotheses. However, living in an inter-subjective reality based on conventionality, we can take it for granted that Beethoven’s will obeyed the same logical rules that we commonly apply as well and, therefore, that our interpretation is most likely correct (from an objective point of view-since, in the purely subjective sphere, it could be replaced by more imaginative mental processing of the musical material).

But if this reasoning was possible because of the subtitle, what could we say about the sonatas without it? In addition, when any linguistic denotation has a vague character (e.g., “Pastorale” or “Eroica” symphonies always by Beethoven), can we understand the “narrative” intentions in the composer’s mind? The “Pastorale” symphony must evoke a succession of rural scenery, perhaps elicit images of meadows, vegetation, ponds, streams, free-roaming animals, and so on, but what else could it possibly say?

It is now musicologically accepted that music is asemantic. And when you want to denote it as language, you always refer to the emotions aroused, certainly not to philosophical disquisitions or the meticulous description of a field of poppies with a few trees and a couple of horses quietly trotting along. Thus, can we infer that ABM implicitly referred to the emotions Beethoven wished to arouse in listeners?

A bucolic landscape, like those that inspired Beethoven as he wrote his Pastoral symphonyThis possibility is likely but opens the door to an additional problem. Suppose music is inherently capable of arousing emotions. In that case, if the production of the sounds recorded on the score is sufficient to trigger particular emotional reactions, why would one take six months to figure out what the composer wanted to “say”? In other words, if I say “the pen is on the table,” the process of signification based on knowledge of the Italian language (and, of course, of ordinary reality) should not need too much elucubration to reach comprehension.

Conversely, if I were to say “the pen tears oil,” I would be making use of poetic language based on metaphors and other rhetorical figures that might not allow one to arrive at either an unambiguous meaning or even activate an “instant” if not purely literal (and thus, often, meaningless) signification. But this scenario is incompatible with music, as it is firmly based on complex semantics and the descriptive possibility of a reality that not only can denote the smallest details but is also capable of producing abstractions that can be reused in other contexts through metaphors and metonyms.

Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that music falls into the “immediate” communicative forms, whose effects, while remaining partially subjective, do not need to serve complex decoding to manifest themselves in their essence. For example, a piece in C minor, with a slow tempo, long notes, dynamics tending toward piano, etc., most likely will not need the subtitle “Funeral March” to arouse a sense of melancholy in the listener. If anything, linguistic information allows one to anticipate what one will hear and, perhaps, be surprised if, at some point, the composer modulates to a major key and switches to a tight rhythm with rapid ascending and crescendo passages. In that case, just like ABM, it would be expected to wonder what was going through the composer’s head!

But while asking this question, can music provide a satisfactory answer? If we were in the presence of a Bach cantata, where first the sorrow of death is described (with tonally minor music and melancholy chants) and then, also suddenly, a Corale in a major key begins with sopranos chanting “Hallelujah,” our surprise would be limited. On the other hand, we know the Gospel story, and we know that Bach, however imaginative and original, would never have taken the trouble to mock death with a brilliant jig and then assign the basses the resurrection hymn while the horns and basso continuo mumble a counterpoint with mournful, compassed features.

But all this is possible by the presence of a text, a linguistic narrative of a story. Music, willingly or unwillingly, will necessarily have to subordinate itself to the semantically dominant elements unless it renounces all structured (albeit asemantic) communicative aspirations altogether and takes refuge, for example, in dodecaphony to give rise to an autonomous and, in many ways, deliberately incapable of communicating by following conventional paths.

Going back to the original question, is it reasonable to assume that ABM wished to penetrate Beethoven’s mind almost like a psychic in front of an old portrait? It is much more reasonable to assume that he, instead, wanted to find some form of “resonance” between his feelings and what he projected in his mental image of a conflicted composer, perpetually striving for happiness but continually thwarted by life events (not least, his early deafness).

After all, isn’t that precisely the job of an interpreter? Wasn’t ABM to continue the creative process started by Beethoven by having his music unfold in the present time? If one accepts this hypothesis, “trying to understand what he meant” results in a process of internalization that does not claim semantic extension. At the same time, while accepting the immediacy of musical perception, he is not content to reproduce the notes as they are printed on the score but, on the contrary, wishes to become a composer himself to “color” with his palette those feelings and affections that music (even reproduced by a synthesizer) should normally arouse.

In this way, not only the formal elements (i.e., time, tone, rhythm, etc.) that define the contours of the “message” but also those nuances that, like the patina that forms on bronze, have the gift of uniqueness. But such uniqueness cannot result from an improvised performance. On the contrary, it needs a reading that takes license to “make music say” what music does not and never will say. Only in this way can the work of musical art be kept alive and given back to the audience of any age: not by playing, but rather, by creating at a given moment in history what has already been, definitely but never wholly, created at any time in the past.


Photos by David Tip


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Memoirs of early classical guitar lessons: a tribute to the absurd

person holding brown guitar outdoorI want to relate some details of my disastrous experience with my first classical guitar teacher. I think many considerations can be helpful to newcomers to avoid awkward situations and waste of time and money.

First of all, I should preface this by saying that I was fortunate enough to study with several teachers, many of whom were true teachers (as well as artists), and I learned a great deal from some advice that, on the surface, seemed excessive. So it is good not to come to conclusions too soon but always to know how to evaluate each situation and make appropriate decisions promptly and critically.

My technical knowledge was undoubtedly not remarkable when I went to my first teacher. I had studied the fundamentals, scales, arpeggios, and many didactic compositions by Sor, Giuliani, Carcassi, Diabelli, etc. However, my sound was imperfect (not that it is imperfect in an absolute sense now!), and I had a long road ahead of me. Therefore, knowing a guitar teacher by name, I decided to turn to him.

I still remember the emotional tension when I began to play a few minor etudes in my repertoire, and I admit without any reluctance that the result was decidedly poor. I made several mistakes and often froze in anxiety. The teacher went from one request to another carelessly, almost as if he considered my “examination” useless.

After about half an hour, without explanation and with very few comments, he told me that I had to cut my nails because, according to him, first you have to learn the movement and then use the nails. I reiterate that my imperfections were obvious, but I would have expected a more constructive approach to correct mistakes and get me on the right track.

Instead, he saw fit to undo all my previous efforts and start again as if I had never held a guitar. Before I continue, I would like to say that the debate between Sor and Aguado on the use of fingernails has been over for well over a century, and by now, almost no guitarists prefer to use only their fingertips. That being said, I have never come across a guitar method in which students were asked to start without nails “to learn movement,” just as, I suppose, there is no violin course in which students start using a bow without a horsehair.

I find this wrong and counterproductive, and I will say more: the teacher should not only make the pupil use the nails immediately but also slowly make him aware of the different touches (including part of the fingertip) so that he becomes aware as soon as possible of the different possibilities that he will have to develop.

During the first week, he assigned me a single exercise. I had to play with my index and middle fingers (no fingernails, cut almost with tears in my eyes after coming home), the strings idle at a speed of 20 bpm (i.e., alternating beats of a metronome set at a minimum of 40 bpm). Elementary math is enough to understand that a finger pulsed every three seconds! Where the mind wandered in those intervals is a mystery, but it was impossible to speak of concentration.

Once again, I would like to clarify. Studying slowly is very important. But defining what the adverb “slowly” means is much more critical. Since this is purely qualitative, it can be subjectively misinterpreted without further specification.

It makes no sense to slow down to the point where you can almost drink coffee between one note and the next, just as it is detrimental to persist at an excessive speed that does not allow for complete control of actions. The rule of thumb should be “to study at a speed that allows you to control your movements while respecting sound quality, articulation, and setting of both hands and finally to avoid distractions.”

Too slow a speed is generally unnecessary and causes thoughts to wander freely when, instead, they should be focused on muscle control. In addition, persistence to the bitter end at a low speed does not allow for muscle development, increased tendon elasticity, and improved motor coordination. The “trick” is to gradually increase whenever you notice that you are no longer making mistakes at a specific rate.

My teacher thought otherwise and, on the second week (also due to naivety due to my young age), had me repeat the same exercise alternating index and ring fingers. The third one was for the middle and ring fingers, and after almost a month, when I began to hate the guitar, he finally made me use my thumb as well!

Completely listless, I undertook, after more time, the study of the chromatic scale, spending the entire lesson correcting the most imperceptible imperfections in the setting. I vividly remember an incident that made me so nervous for the first time that I reacted firmly. I was told to rest my right forearm at a point on the edge of the guitar and play (at 40 bpm) the chromatic scale in the first position. Because the support point was too far toward the neck, my right shoulder tended to rise to make my hand reach the strings.

Whenever it happened, I would hear his annoying rebuke, “The shoulder is tense!” At that point, as expected, I would lower my shoulder, sliding my forearm outward slightly. With a bit of imagination, you can imagine the teacher’s reaction: he immediately corrected me by asking me to bring my forearm closer. This ridiculous exchange occurred a couple of times, after which I blurted out, telling him that it was impossible to do both simultaneously! I shushed him, at least for that day.

I continued classes for another couple of months, listening to pedantic and boring speeches and undergoing corrections bordering on the ridiculous. To mention one, I remember unintentionally starting to play a concise study at 42 bpm instead of 40 bpm. To specify, at 40 bpm, each beat occurs after 1.5 seconds, while at 42 bpm, after about 1.428 seconds! I don’t doubt that such a discrepancy, although on the order of hundredths of a second, could create mismatches in an orchestra, but in that case, I was playing solo! The difference in difficulty is practically negligible, but his rebuke was peremptory: “First, you study it one week at 40, and then you move on to 42.”

In short, I endured that situation too long before I decided (albeit somewhat reluctantly, given my expectations) to abandon it and find a better solution. I am convinced I did the right thing and regret not quitting sooner. The only bright side is that that overabundance of nonsense allowed me to develop a strong critical sense, a “gift” that saved me wasted time on several occasions.

With that, I end my brief journey into the past, hoping that if any neophytes read this article, they may draw some constructive conclusions. Time is precious and should never be wasted. We must investigate and demand an explanation when we realize something is not working. Unless you are in front of an educator of unquestioned reputation, supinely accepting what you think is wrong and pedantic is an unforgivable mistake. Always pretend appropriate and convincing answers; do not be persuaded by phrases such as “It must be done this way.” Always ask why. And, if you do not get a valid answer, you begin to think that in front of you, there is no absolute master, but rather a person who applies “prefabricated” patterns without any adaptation to specific situations.

Sound. Learn and study! The classical guitar is a beautiful instrument that, like all others, does not seek elites but only demands perseverance, patience, and commitment. In return, it will give you pleasure and satisfaction in abundance and without limits!


Photos of Brandon Wilson


 

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Atonality: the aesthetic dilemma arising from an artistic revolt

a blurry photo of a person doing a trickWe want to ask how pleasant, aesthetically appreciable, and ultimately beautiful atonal music is. First, clarifying that “atonality” does not imply using serial or similarly contrived compositional patterns is helpful. In our understanding, it represents only the choice not to compose with alterations in key and, therefore, to give up the presence of tonal centers with attracting power from which it is challenging to move away.

Tonal music is primarily characterized by melodic and harmonic choices that always revolve around the tonic or fundamental. If, for example, a piece is composed in E major, it will frequently return to the E-G#-B triad, representing a reference point from which to start and return to give the piece a sense of resolution and completion. Even in the case of modulations, the new tonics will always play the same role, the only difference being that they are inherently transient and generally subject to fading out either in the planting key or, quite often, in other neighboring tones.

In the atonal sphere, the composer renounces any constraint dictated by the presence of a privileged pair of chords (of tonic and dominant) to take refuge in a flow of what are no longer mere chromaticisms but rather exact compositional choices aimed at making particular atmospheres or sound images vivid. In a sense, one could speak of atonality even when many composers choose non-diatonic scales (such as, for example, hexatonal or pentatonic). Of course, there is always a tonal reference in the latter case, even if its structure is foreign to the classical-orthodox harmonic culture.

A pure atonality takes away the listener’s ability to anticipate a “homecoming” sooner or later. Still, unlike seriality (or other similar avant-garde choices), it does not necessarily give up classical compositional syntax. In fact, according to music composition theory, a piece should be imagined with syntactic properties similar to those of a narrative. The motifs represent words, while the sentences, with a balanced trend in antecedent and consequent, are the counterpart of the linguistic namesake.

In particular, these should be composed with a semicircle or parabola in mind. From the beginning, the phrase can evolve freely until it reaches an acme, from which it descends to a resolution on the tonic through a cadence. This approach complements the phrase and offers our ears a satisfying sound experience. To understand the above, baasti thinks of the short line in the song “Happy Birthday to You.” The evolution seems to move away from the center of the word “best wishes” (precisely, with the syllable “day”). Still, it then quickly plummets toward it with the pattern associated with the words “to you.” To further realize what I am saying, it is helpful to try playing a scale (possibly provided with chromaticism) and singing the song following the ascending progression. The effect is unsatisfactory as, to the “narrative” conclusion that would like all emphasis focused on the words “to you,” an escalating sequence is associated that escapes unchecked.

So, atonality that respects classical syntax, as unbold as it might seem, provides the listener with the perceptual tools that promote memorization and, ultimately, understanding of the piece. Many pop music, jazz, rock, etc., fall into this category (even without being fully aware of it often). On the contrary, the decrease of tonality accompanied by the renunciation of classical syntax has been considered by many to be the authentic product of artistic evolution, but, at the same time, it ends up being an experiment that leaves one speechless (if not replaced by whistles).

To understand what I am asserting, I invite you to listen to Arnold Schoenberg‘s Variations for Orchestra Op. 31, which we might describe as the main theorist and composer using this approach:

YouTube player

The composition is lovely. I don’t think you can say otherwise too lightly, but what impression does it provide? What stands out immediately is the sequential aspect of the sentences. A “movement” is not followed by a return action whose purpose should be to balance the tension with a subsequent relaxation. On the contrary, the piece evolves continuously, with no (or very few) returns to previously presented material.

Syntax is wholly disrupted, and the listener is “forced” to accept a musical experience without the prerogative of content anticipation. If classically, the competitive “game” relied on the continuous contrast between correct prediction and surprise (e.g., now the sentence closes with a cadence and returns to the central theme?), in this case, there is no alternative to surprise. Regarding information theory, this kind of music has a very high entropy, far beyond the limits to which most early twentieth-century audiences inhabited.

But while a syntactic disruption is often intolerable in literature (indeed, it is generally marked as a serious error since it affects semantics), in music, comprehension does not rely on explicit transfer of meaning. A correct sentence such as “John went to the movies and had a good time” clearly informs us of a subject (John), an action (going to the movies), and a consequent emotional condition (having a good time). The semantic impact could be devastating if I altered the structure without respecting the basic syntactic rules.

However, in music, this kind of meaning is not pursued. So, the listener, though displaced, could not say that he or she did not “get it.” At most, he might claim that he did not enjoy the music or could not follow its unfolding with due intellectual and emotional involvement. From this, we infer that a syntactic change in music is never as “dangerous” as in literature. The absence of a consequent in a phrase, the missed expectation of a cadence, the shift from a movement that would suggest a modulation to a leap to a series of chromaticisms, etc., can disturb the ear but not the brain.

What Schoenberg said (supported by many contemporary and later musicologists) is accurate. Habit is more robust than any syntactic or harmonic rule. It is absurd to pretend that a listener from the Baroque period could accept such music (although Bach, for example, made exemplary use of chromaticism). Still, the contamination that took place at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made it possible to learn about “exotic” sounds that would soon become very popular.

At this point, the crucial “problem” is only aesthetic. Is the most driven atonality, good or bad, without syntactic or classical harmonic footholds? Beyond the (often questionable) ideological and philosophical choices, are the artistic results worthy of attention, or is it better to erase a piece of music history by covering it with a veil of shame?

I think the latter assumption is wrong. Despite the disagreement of ideas, no one should be allowed to devalue art too lightly. I am convinced that the 21st-century man’s ear is still unaccustomed to this kind of sound, primarily because of the spread of pop music, which makes extensive use of “classic” (albeit with ever-changing instruments, shapes, and timbres) and effortlessly catchy structures. However, many atonal compositions that are not overly cerebral (e.g., based on mathematical structures or matrices of permutations) continue to give emotions and evoke very intense atmospheres. I dare say he succeeds even more than many classical and Romantic composers, who either took refuge in natural imitation or, often, contoured particular motifs with complex harmony, creating a stunning but sometimes less evocative work than expected.

I conclude by inviting readers to listen to several pieces by atonal composers, such as, for example, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, etc. (I also include Leo Brouwer, being a classical guitarist myself), to read the titles (often essential for the correct decoding of the sound content) and, finally, to come to one’s conclusions. I would be delighted to read your comments along these lines and perhaps start a fruitful discussion that can only enrich each of us and broaden our cultural horizons!


Photos of Hulki Okan Tabak


 

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The Sidereal Silence of John Cage

I want to continue the unraveling of avant-garde and experimental music by analyzing some of its most iconic compositions. In this case, it is the famous (famous and, in a way, even “infamous,” considering certain critics) piece by John Cage entitled 4′ 33”. For those unfamiliar, there is no need to provide for listening this time. The score comprises a series of pause bars with a set time for the performance to end precisely after 4 minutes and 33 seconds.

It would be more evident if anyone did not fully grasp the concept. The piece is pure silence. There are no notes, no recitatives. Just silence. At this point, it seems evident that Cage intended some joke, but, betraying all evidence, we can say this is not his purpose. Indeed, the semantics of the composition are pregnant, and without the need for too much verbal instruction, it can guide the listener to a unique and unrepeatable musical experience.

Throughout his career, John Cage tried various forms of experimentation and, like Stockhausen, never felt limited by circumstances. Famous are his sound experiments inside anechoic chambers-small rooms completely soundproofed and wallpapered with sound-reflecting panels, capable of absorbing pressure waves while reflecting only a tiny part of them. In that absolute silence (so driven that it could even lead to mental disturbances if the stay were excessively prolonged), Cage, sitting in the center of the room, listened to his heartbeat, the air flowing into his windpipe, his diaphragm moving rhythmically, his tendons producing small pops and any other sound that would not usually cross the threshold of attention.

The idea for the 4′ 33” piece must certainly have been a consequence of that experience. Indeed, he probably “observed” the world around him in a state of profound stillness and implicitly created a dividing line between a listening subject (himself) and a universe absorbed in “religious” silence. This, strange as it may be, has its physical logic (which, however, cannot be categorized, i.e., limited to sub-systems; too easily – that’s why we would have to make an imaginative effort) that is expressed by the concept of absolute zero.

The temperature of -273.15 °C is a physical limit theorized by thermodynamics. Although not attainable in any one way (infinite energy would be required to cool even a small molecule), it represents the limit at which most physical and chemical processes reach a state of arrest or “minimum survival” (residual energy remains, as demonstrated by quantum physics). In more philosophical terms, we can say that absolute zero represents total stasis, a condition of immobility that invests every object, rendering it incapable of producing any reaction. In one word: death.

Fascinated by this concept, John Cage decided to compose a piece lasting 273 seconds (the 15 cents would have been too complicated to replicate), or 4 minutes (60 × 4 = 240 seconds) plus 33 seconds (240 + 33 = 273). This is the most reasonable explanation of the title and duration of the work. But what about the silence? We mentioned the dichotomy between the listener (microcosmic) and the universe in stable equilibrium (macrocosmic). Metaphorically, the above relationship can represent the structure of a theater or concert area, separated into the stage (where the music originates) and the stalls (where the audience enjoys the music).

Therefore, the semantics of 4′ 33” is a reversal of the musician-audience relationship. Those who should emit pressure waves according to the composer’s order and dynamics are silent. Those who should receive them get excited and enjoy them, limiting extraneous noise as much as possible, instead becoming the primary source of all audible sound. Unknowingly (especially the first time), the audience, better if undisciplined, becomes an orchestra without a conductor or score. In this sense, 4′ 33” is pure performing music, as it exists solely and exclusively in its interpretations.

In addition, each interpretation is unique, unrepeatable, and never subject to patterns or schools of thought. Once the performer “frozen at absolute zero” sits in front of the piano, the real orchestra can donate to the musical life every cough, sneeze, whisper, movement in the chairs, scratching, etc. And, in extreme cases, such as in a stadium, the crowd may perform in the production of even more varied and consistent noise. Any sound/noise produced by bystanders is welcome (as opposed to the performer, whose stasis is an unavoidable factor). There could very well be someone who plays more music on their smartphone, those who shout, and why not, even those who decide to throw objects on stage to liven up the atmosphere.

The main reason behind this freedom is inherent in the “musical prison” in which the performer is voluntarily confined. Just as a man in an anechoic chamber, or, in the extreme case, a system at absolute zero, there is no escape from passivity. Written music must be silent, but this does not imply that those who still enjoy freedom (i.e., who have energy and vitality) should be subject to this rule. Indeed, it is the latter who have the burden and honor of completing the meaning of the composition.

Just as in front of a monochrome by Mario Schifano and a cut by Lucio Fontana, it is up to the observer to fill in the gaps. The listeners of 4′ 33” are also called upon to participate. Even an unsuspecting polite audience waiting in “silence” for the performance to begin would be found to be unwitting performers, as the only system at “absolute zero” is located on the stage. Everything else is living matter and, therefore, also noisy. The only difference between a coughing fit during an Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli concert and a 4′ 33” performance is that, in the former case, it would be an annoying disturbance. At the same time, the latter would be a structural and purely improvisational part of the work.

At this point, I only want to invite you to listen to the composition with commitment and without distractions. Your role is no longer what you are used to. From the universe to absolute zero, where a crystallized orchestra watches with glassy eyes, one expects to enjoy an unparalleledly unique work of art: one of the infinite 4′ 33” completions. Do not disappoint those who have boundless confidence in your countless expressive possibilities!


 

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