November Pontificating

Some random pontifications taken from recent podium chats….

On Scott Joplin-
The history of 20th Century popular culture is really the history of American popular music, and the history of American popular music is really the history of black music. The musics that dominate today’s airwaves all over the world, whether it be hip-hop, rock, pop or funk, it all springs from the same sources. Rock gave us hip-hop, and jazz gave us rock, but it was ragtime that gave us everything, and it was Scott Joplin who gave us ragtime.

Ragtime laid down once and for all the basic rhythmic vocabulary of American black music, and in the 107 years since Joplin published Maple Leaf Rag, we haven’t actually added much.

The simple fact is that Scott Joplin is the single most influential and important American composer who ever lived. What greater testimony could there be to the power of art to change the world than the simple fact that a black man, born in one of the most racist pockets of the South just a few years after the Civil War could change the entire world forever.
I challenge anyone to find a bar of any Joplin rag that could be more perfectly constructed.

Ragtime begot jazz, which begot rock n toll, which begot hip-hop. It’s enough to put you off the theory of evolution.Nevertheless, was there an American in the 20th Century who did more to change the world?

On Benjamin Britten

Britten’s “Les Illuminations” is one of those masterpieces that is just enough off the beaten path to really hammer home that there are far too may great pieces of music for any one person to get to know them all in a thousand lifetimes. Rimbaud’s poetry has its own seductive musicality- he was as fascinated with the sound of the word as he was with the meaning of the word. It’s hard to imagine that there could be a musical setting of these poems that doesn’t lose something of the magic of the texts, but Britten manages to create a series of miniature musical landscapes that actually enhance the musicality of the language.How must the French feel to know that the greatest musical setting of French poetry in the 20th Century is by an Englishman?

On Britten and Haydn

It might seem like a coincidence that we’ve programmed Britten’s Les Illuminations alongside Haydn’s Symphony No. 103. However, there is an aspect of Britten’s music that might not be obvious to the listener that links these two composers.
When one sets about preparing a performance of Les Illuminations, or any other Britten work I’ve done, you can’t help but be amazed at the extraordinary craft that has gone into each work. I can’t think of a single piece of his where there was a more elegant way to express what he wanted. So many composers, even many of the greats, are content to write the music and leave it to the performer to sort out how to bring the ideas to life. Britten always finds the simplest, most elegant, most perfect way of achieving his musical aims. There are big challenges for the performer in all his pieces, but there’s never a moment where the performer feels that he’s been left to clean up after the composer, and never a moment that is any more awkward than it has to be. Haydn is one of the few composers who share this quality, and this is all the more amazing given how prolific he was. How could someone write so much, and have each work be so polished, so perfect?

On Haydn

We tend to think of Haydn as a comfortable, conservative, middle-class, middle-of-the-road composer.In fact, it’s not hard to make the case that Haydn was the most innovative, most radical and most creative composer who ever lived. After all, he not only invented and defined the three most useful and widely imitated instrumental forms in classical music (the string quartet, the modern piano sonata and the symphony), but in each genre he anticipated almost every innovation later composers would come up with. We often think of Beethoven or Schumann or Tchaikovsky or Mahler as composers who greatly expanded the range of what one could do in a symphony, but Haydn did it all- they just did it louder and for longer.In the “Drumroll” Symphony, no. 103, Haydn is toying with the same constructive device Tchaikovsky would use in his Fourth and Fifth symphonies and that Mahler would use most obviously in his Sixth- a recurring motive that returns at key moments throughout the symphony. In this case it is the horn fifths, which most obviously open the finale, but which also occur in significant spots in the first and second movements. If Stravinsky had done the same thing, critics might have called his use of the technique subversive- suggesting he was making fun of Romantic composers’ fascination with Fate motives and the like. I can’t help but find some of that same wit in Haydn’s early use of the technique in this piece.

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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