Monday, September 4, 2017

A couple of music books

I've been on a bit of a Charles Rosen kick in the last few months.

I made it through Sonata Forms, his book on the history of sonata forms.  It's always been too much for me before, because many of his musical examples are pretty obscure (including an opera by Leonardo daVinci (who knew there was one?)), and my piano skills aren't up to playing them.  But in an age of youtube, most of them are findable, and so I could get the context.

It's a good book, with lots of good information, but, in the end, I don't think it's at the level of The Classical Style.  For one thing, Sonata Forms deals with a lot of minor composers in trying to explain the background that sonata form grew out of, so it's not great at elucidating what differentiates Mozart and Haydn (or even composers like CPE Bach) from their contemporaries.  For another, the post-18th century discussion is pretty perfunctory.  His reasons are understandable (he claims sonata form sort of stops developing after Beethoven, which I don't buy), but, even so, it's almost a joke to have a post-18th century chapter that only covers Brahms and Bartok.

I've recently being going through Rosen's Beethoven Sonatas as well.  A lot of good solid info, although it's clearly aimed at an audience very familiar with music theory.  He tosses around phrases like "Beethoven here uses the V of the V of the V of the tonic to reinforce the dominant" with no further explanation, which would probably be trying on the patience of a total newbie.  (Cf The Classical Style, which at least makes the concession of explaining the circle of fifths).  On the other hand, his very extensive discussion of tempi, pedaling, and the like, is probably not of huge interest to a casual reader anyway.  On the other hand, a reader familiar with the terminology will find a lucid explanation of some of the fine points of the sonatas.  I'm finding it quite exhilarating to revisit these sonatas, and the book makes a good excuse to listen to them all again, which is never a bad thing.

I'm also reading Freedom and the Arts in small chunks, easy to do since it's a collection of essays.  It's hard to say who this one is aimed at, since it ranges from the incredibly technical (the role of continuo in Mozart) to the very simple (an overview of Chopin's work in about 10 pages).  The whole is very uneven in quality as well.  There are some really good articles on interpretation, and a few that are total ephemera -- it seems that Rosen had something of a feud with Richard Taruskin, and at least two of the essays are devoted to it.

One thing I've noticed about Rosen, and I think it's a really big deal, is that he has the ability to explain why such-and-such is a major composer, and to hone in on it clearly and concisely.  He can talk about a composer's weaknesses, but then say things like "it's Mendelssohn's sense of the structure of a work that shows so clearly in ..." and then throw in a few examples.  His book on Schoenberg is the only thing I've ever read that made me want to go back and re-sample the dodecaphonic works.


Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Romantic Generation


Charles Rosen's The Classical Style is one of the great classics (no pun intended) of music criticism, focusing on the music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven within a period of about 25 years.  It's a very focused book, skipping over Haydn's sturm und drang period almost entirely, for example, as well as a lot of early Beethoven.

The Romantic Generation is a much more discursive book, partly because the Romantics he focuses on were a more diverse group, ranging from Chopin, whose music is very abstract, to Berlioz, with his program music.  I'm about 1/3 of the way through the book, and so far it's a wonderful ride.

The first part deals with generalities about the Romantic period -- the fascination with fragments, the song cycles, the use of tonal spaces, and so on.  His analysis of the Schubert song cycles brought me a new appreciation of links between the songs, the progression from one to the next, and Schubert's use of key areas to mark out the journey from beginning to end.

He follows this general section to specifics on a number of composers, and the only one I've really had time to dive into Chopin.  Chopin gets a bit of a bad rap as a composer whose music is just miniatures, or focused more on feeling than technical composition, or who throws together melodies that just happen to sound good.  As a huge Chopin fan, that's always felt a bit unfair to me, and so it was gratifying to read Rosen's vindication of Chopin.  His strength in The Classical Style is the close reading of music, such as his analysis of the Chopin E-flat piano concerto or Beethoven's Hammerklavier.  Here, he gives pages to the last movement of the piano sonata in B-flat minor and the Ballade in A-flat, showing how Chopin uses polyphony and heterophony to develop his themes and textures.  I think Rosen hits the nail on the head when he says that the "musical shortcomings" are really more of a lack of vocabulary to describe in a short way what Chopin does, rather than actual shortcomings on his part.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Human Factor

Graham Greene famously divided his writing output into "novels" and "entertainments," with the latter being more light-weight thrillers.  The Human Factor, though, is something of a cross-over.  It's an espionage novel, but not much of a thriller; instead, this story of a mole in British intelligence focuses on his loneliness and isolation.

It's an enjoyable novel (although very depressing), once I got past the opening setup.  The ending images are pretty haunting.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Mr. Palomar

I don't really have anything intelligent to say about Mr. Palomar.  It's by Italo Calvino, which means it's sui generis, strange, and beautiful.  He was a fantastic writer, in both senses of the word.

Kings of Cool

Kings of Cool is the prequel to Savages, and very much of a piece with it.  The same punchy style.  The same lack of depth.  It's a bit worse for being a prequel -- I rarely like prequels, because a whole lot of the plot revolves around getting the characters into place for the next book, which we've already read.  The biggest pluses for this book are that the style is enough fun to get over the other hurdles, and the novel is short enough that its annoyances don't really build up.

But I'll be happy to read the next Neal Carey book, which should have a bit of substance.

Liberation Movements

Liberation Movements is Olen Steinhauer's fourth novel set in an imaginary Eastern Bloc country; each novel has taken a look at this country in a different decade.  Liberation Movements is a bit of an odd duck in the series, for a couple of reasons.  One of the major players is kinda-sorta psychic (her abilities are given a rational basis, but they're still supra-normal), whereas up till now the series has been very much of this world.  It's also set almost entirely outside of the home country of the series.

I think that both of these differences lead to a weaker book than the first three.  Part of the problem, I think, is that one of the strengths of those books was the relentless feeling of suffocation.  By setting so much of the novel across the border, Steinhauer relaxes the tension somewhat; in addition, I found the psychic a distraction, and the "explanation" of her abilities made it worse, because it took me out of the novel while I thought of how implausible the explanation is.

It's still a solid novel, and I'll certainly pick up the last of the series, but it just felt like a let-down after the first 3.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The James Deans

I loved the first two Moe Praeger books (although I see I that I only blogged about the first one).  They share with most hard-boiled detective novels a certain level of cynicism, but they also have an underlying optimism that people can find a personal redemption, even in an environment that is corrupt.  It's a rare combination with in the field, and Coleman's thoughtful exploration of hope and redemption was appealing.

Unfortunately, the third novel, The James Deans, is in much more standard territory.  There is a too-good-to-be-true politician, his wealthy handler, an corrupt policeman, and other standard accoutrements of the genre.  It's not a bad book per se (although the plot is a bit overly convoluted), and Reed Farrell Coleman is a solid writer, but it didn't really stand out for me.