Wednesday, March 01, 2006
The Bicycle Pump
In the 36 years that I have taught music survey, or appreciation sections to liberal arts students I have always said: “All I want from you is that you allow music to address any and all aspects of the human condition”. These students’ prior acquaintance with classical music generally begins and ends in the single digits of age when they watched cartoons; many of them now require heavy rock accompaniments and charismatic, lean slightly scary artists to take music seriously. Or they may tolerate tragedy in a movie; suspense and tension on TV. A few others, however “get it” and I do the best I can with them.
But in the classical era of music history, even the composers fail to meet my condition. Inheriting an already sparse choice of two principal scales, 95% of the time they choose the brighter and lighter major; minor is too serious for them. The music mainly is heard by the aristocratic few, helping them forget what they are doing to the impoverished and overworked many. It is no coincidence that the brief life of Mozart spans the years of both the American and French revolutions. Someday we may all teach that the principal gift of the classical period is the codification of sonata form, symphonies and so forth, making a transition between the dynamic (and contrapuntally driven) Baroque period, and the expressive (and structurally driven) Romantic period.
Do I dislike them all - Boccherini, Gluck, Haydn, early Beethoven? Yes, I do, but Mozart deserves a special place. It is not true that he is the worst of all composers; his prodigious technical skills developed by age six. Sometimes it is not so great to be a prodigy,- I often feel his emotional and dramatic palette is set at the same age. Rather he is the most overrated composer of them all. The difference between the (mediocre) quality of his music and the (celestial) reverance he is accorded is a gulf simply beyond belief.
There are those who have told me: “Wait till your 40s, when you’ve lost people close to you, suffered disappointments in life, fully matured. Then you’ll see the melancholy in almost every phrase.” I am 60, and I’m still waiting. And they have told me: “Just listen to those fantastic minor-key fugues, Laudate Pueri from the K. 339 Vespers, Kyrie from the C Minor Mass.” Those would be very impressive examples if I hadn’t also heard the counterpoint of one J. S. Bach, of whose works, Mozart’s constitute A-minus student imitations. (The MAJOR-key multi-subject fugue in the finale of the Jupiter symphony DOES impress, however.)
And they told me: “Listen to the pieces, usually also in minor, where you can hear a contained smoldering prefiguring the romantic era”. Those excerpts do indeed exist, but they actually are the most convincing passages of the fact that the emperor has no clothes, as Mozart always follows them with silly kid-stuff. It is like topping off a fresh-herb flavored veal scallopine with Ready Whip. For reasons of space, I will refer only to examples in D Minor.
The quartet in that key has a remarkable minuet with dark counterpoint and some unexpected harmonic connections. But the “B” section is major-tonality broken-chord fluff - barely even a recognizable theme but just what would be accompaniment, much less anything of substance. In the outer movements of the 20th Piano Concerto we do hear music that anticipates a composer like Schumann much of the way. But at the end Mozart cheers us up (in my opinion lets us down) by asking the first trumpeter of the orchestra to play, innumerable times, a simple figure delineating a D Major chord, six fast As, then one each F# and D. A friend of mine once played that part in a concert. After the concert, he and I went for pizza and every time he went for a swig of beer, I made him laugh by humming “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-BUM-BUM”. The poor guy might have gotten down three good sips.
But the worst is the Requiem. Commanding opening - one of the better neo-Bach fugues, ending powerfully with a surprising open fifth, and a stormy Dies Irae (which I rather find a tempest in a teapot, but that’s not the point). Now comes perhaps the worst few minutes of music ever written. The aria “Tuba Mirum” presents (loudly, but that doesn’t help) the solo voice in a melody that would be better a lullaby. The obbligato part is a solo trombone; surely Mozart did not think that just the choice of instrument was enough for the fearful, day-of-judgment words. But indeed he writes dominant 7th arpeggios, graceful and gentle and the poor trombonist sounds less like the trumpet of doom or wrath, and more like a pump refilling the tires of a bicycle with air.
See if you don’t agree. When you’ve been to your umpteenth Mozart concert this year, and already are scratching your head about the mystique, take out your CD of the Requiem, any performance will do (We know you own one), and with an open mind, ear, and heart, ignoring all standard wisdom and listening a-fresh, play the bicycle pump - oops, I mean the Tuba Mirum. See if you don’t laugh, out loud. See if you don’t say: “Goodness, is this the icon we have worshipped for one quarter of a millennium?”
I bet that is exactly how you will react; I’ll stake my own reputation
as a composer on it.
I was just made aware of this editorial. Since it's so old I did a search on here but found no mention of it.Arnold Rosner (b. 1945) is a prolific American composer whose music has been performed in the United States and Israel. His works exceed 100 in number and steer clear, generally, of both the post-serial avant-garde movement of the 1960’s and the minimalist movement which followed it. His treatment of harmony and counterpoint, along with the occasional recourse to an ethnic, Middle Eastern flavor, places his music in the esthetic milieu of Paul Hindemith, Ernest Bloch, and Alan Hovhaness.
Rosner is currently on the faculty of Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, where he teaches both standard and ethnic music. Having composed since the age of nine, he received advanced degrees from the State University of New York at Buffalo while studying with Leo Smit, Allen Sapp, Henri Pousseur and Lejaren Hiller, from all of whom, in his own words, “I learned practically nothing.”