Monday, May 12, 2008

musicological smackdowns

Musicologists and gangster rappers have a lot more in common than you might think -- they both spend a fairly high proportion of their work ripping on the works of their rivals, for one thing. I just started reading Opera as Drama by Joseph Kerman, which is of course a very scholarly, serious musicological text. But he starts out his preface dissing mercilessly on another musicologist, Peter Conrad, who wrote an article defending Tosca as an effective dramatic work:
Conrad calls the static opening of Act III dramatically cogent because it summarizes "the operatic transvaluing of religious values that has preceded" -- something that can indeed be said to be articulated by music: by stage music, by the Shepherd Boy's song followed by the melange of church bells. What, then, does Puccini's score accomplish that would not be accomplished by literal folksongs and Sunday-morning tape recordings? What does its particular mawkish (and undaring) quality have to do with the opera's "daring profanation of the sacred"? It is on questions like that Conrad's interpretation stands or, as I think, falls.

- Preface to the New Edition, Opera as Drama by Joseph Kerman, p. xiii

Oh, no he didn't! I almost want to read the Peter Conrad article, just so I can fully enjoy Kerman's musicological smack-down. Not that I share his low opinion of Tosca -- maybe it is mawkish, but it can still make an auditorium full of people whimper and sob. I just get a huge pleasure from watching music critics go at it, mocking one another's clumsily phrased arguments and unfortunate choices of adjectives. It's sort of like watching a gang of pirhanas and a shark mix it up -- you're not sure which you're pulling for, you just want to see some carnage.

Opera as Drama is a fun book to read, even if you're not a big fan of musicological squabbling. I'm still only on Chapter 2 -- Orpheus: The Neoclassic Vision -- but already there's been an intriguing reference to a famous double bass excerpt, in the Prologue:
The scene begins on a celebrated note of menace, muted double-basses interrupting the ethereal close of Desdemona's Ave Maria. What defines it as much as the grotesque color and pitch is the key contrast, E thrust into A-flat. The double-bass line becomes more mellow, and limps, punctuated by an urgent motive, at first bleak, then flaring up as Otello makes to scimitar Desdemona at once.

- p. 7
Hey, watch who you're calling 'grotesque', mister. Though I do like the word 'menace', and the 'thrust' of our first low E entrance. Hearing that transition is always startling, and it seems like a shame to start that excerpt without the high, ethereal A-flat major chord that precedes it. Bass players can argue endlessly about whether there should be an accent on that note, and what kind of accent, or maybe just a swell, or a lean... I'm not really sure what the right answer is. When you experience it in context though, and feel that stomach-lurching change of tonality, the bass section really does play a dramatic role.

A friend once told me about a ghastly visualization exercise he was given for this excerpt. He had played through the Otello soli for a noted bassist and pedagogue, at the very beginning of their first lesson. The teacher asked, "Do you have a wife or girlfriend?" -- yes, he replied, he did have a girlfriend. "I want you to play it again, but imagine that you're so enraged, so furious, at such a psychotic breaking point, that you are prepared to kill the woman you love."

At that point, I think he may have asked, "And should I begin with an accent?"

1 comment:

Charles said...

I love the punchline.