Music 101

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a very laid-back kind of guy, unlikely to take an irrational dislike to anything or anyone and in possession of an easy-going and tolerant nature not disposed to any form of grumpiness.

However, I’ve decided to celebrate the fact that I’ve finished marking all my resit examinations by letting my hair down a bit and giving you a list of my musical pet hates. The title is an allusion to  George Orwell’s 1984, wherein Room 101 was a personalised torture chamber containing a prisoner’s own worst nightmare. Here I’ve confined myself to music. I was going to include rap but, as I said, I’ve decided to confine myself to music.

Brass Bands. I don’t mind brass bands – particularly colliery bands and the Salvation Army band – at Christmas or for singing hymns to, but I’ve put them on my list for the excruciating brass-band arrangements of classical or jazz that make my skin crawl. You wouldn’t want to play Jimi Hendrix on the banjo, and you shouldn’t let a brass band play Wagner.

Elvis Presley. His music was largely nicked from much more talented black musicians, and his inferior versions became popular simply because he was white and (when he was young) good-looking. He wasn’t even average as a singer. During his later years he became a monument to extreme self-indulgence and dreadful Las Vegas Kitsch, a bloated laughing-stock in a sequinned jumpsuit. I like a lot of Rock’n’Roll, but Elvis was the pits.

Brahms & Liszt . Where the majestic journey of the Germanic romantic tradition veered off into a tedious cul-de-sac. Turgid and impenetrable on the one hand, flowery and overwrought on the other. But what about Brahms’ German Requiem? I’m with George Bernard Shaw, who said that it was a work to be “patiently borne only by a corpse”. When invited to hear the work for a second time, he declined. “There are are some sacrifices which should not be demanded twice from any man; and one of them is listening to Brahms’ Reqiuem.” I could have added Schumann to this too, but then I would have lost the reference to Cockney rhyming slang.

Period Instruments My heart always sinks when I pick up a CD of a much-loved piece only to read the dreaded words “played on period instruments”. Read “played on inferior instruments (and probably out of tune too)”. Why on Earth would anyone prefer the buttock-clenchingly awful scraping sound made by a baroque cello or viola da gamba to a proper instrument? And as for the so-called “natural trumpet”, words fail me.

I’ve added this from Anton, which makes the point better than I could!

periodinstruments

Barbershop Quartets Close-harmony singing can be wonderful to listen to – I’m a great admirer of Welsh male voice choirs, for example. However, the whining fake joviality of a Barbershop quartet is quite unendurable. Cut my throat with a razor rather than make me listen to one!

The Four Seasons I’m prepared to accept that Antonio Vivaldi might have written a reasonably competent piece of music in The Four Seasons. After all, he wrote so many little concerti that he’d be expected to come up with one half-decent one just by chance. The problem is that I’ve heard it so many times, in lifts, shops and, worst of all, at the other end of a telephone call centre line – and usually in very badly played versions – that I think I’ll commit murder the next time I hear it. And don’t get me started on Nigel Kennedy either.

Pan Pipes I dream of the day when it is possible to walk along a British high street without my ears being assaulted by faux Andean tootling to the accompaniment of overamplified muzak. Those guys may dress like Incas but they’ve probably never been closer to South America than Weston-super-mare. And do they think people can’t tell they’re miming?

Hector Berlioz Revoltingly overblown bombastic nonsense from a man whose ego exceeded his talent by as large a factor as you can find. My music teacher at School loved Berlioz, with the result that his vacuous splurgy ramblings were inflicted on me and my classmates lesson after lesson. The normally generous Giuseppe Verdi said that Berlioz “was a poor, sick fellow, full of fury against the world at large, bitter and spiteful.” Perhaps he couldn’t come to terms with his own mediocrity.

Folk Singers I like a lot of folk music, but don’t like English folk singers,  especially those that sing in a made-up west country accent and stick their fingers in their ears as they do so. If we have to listen to their irritating nasal droning, then at least they should have the courtesy to unblock their ears and suffer with the rest of us.

Harpsichords I could have included these under “period instruments”, but I think they deserve to be singled out for special mention. There might have been an excuse for playing a harpsichord in the days before the pianoforte was invented, but they should now all be destroyed to save us from the hideous plinky-plonky jingly-jangly noise they make. “Like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof” was how Sir Thomas Beecham described them, and who am I to disagree? Nothing was ever written for the harpsichord that didn’t sound better when played on the piano.

So there you are. That’s my list. If you feel like relieving a bit of stress feel free to add your own via the comments box. But please keep your contributions as measured and reasonable as mine.

29 Responses to “Music 101”

  1. Agree with most, but have to disagree on period instruments, folk singers and harpsichords.

    Period instruments—you say Jimi Hendrix shouldn’t be played on the banjo. Neither should he be played on a digital synthesiser or samples of him integrated into the latest drum ‘n’ bass garbage. Bach and his ilk played on modern instruments is worse than James Last plays the Beatles. Really.

    Folk singers—there are good and bad, but I wouldn’t discredit the whole genre. I just returned from Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, where I ran into some good folk music. What about REAL west-country singers like the group Show of Hands?

    Harpsichords—I really like the piano, but just in jazz or rock music, not in so-called “classical” music (by which I mean “serious” music, not 1750–1820). For baroque music, it has to be a harpsichord. Again, Bach on the piano is like James Last playing the Beatles—or the latest laptop DJ sampling James Brown.

    Let’s move on to the 10 most overrated rock groups. Off the top of my head: Procul Harum, Mott the Hoople, The White Stripes, Nirvana (the 90s grunge, not the 60s group of the same name), Jefferson Airplane/Starship etc, Free, ELP, Steely Dan, The Band, the Velvet Underground.

    And of course all punk-rock groups.

    Personal opinion, of course, but in these cases I think that critical acclaim or popularity or both are much more than the music itself justifies.

  2. telescoper Says:

    I’ve heard the argument about Bach many times. I can’t help thinking that the only reason he wrote for harpsichord was that he didn’t have a better alternative, i.e. a piano. Nobody will ever convice me that the Goldberg variations sound better on a harpsichord. Likewise with period strings and brass.

    And I’d be prepared to stand up for the Velvet Underground too. Very variable, but they did make some gems.

  3. Why stop at the piano? Actually, I prefer Wendy Carlos’s synthesiser Bach
    to non-period but traditional instruments. (Glenn Gould also praised Carlos’s work highly.) I am not aware of any transcriptions Bach himself made for similar instruments, say recorder to flute or harpsichord to organ. But he did transcribe violin stuff for the lute, or violin stuff for organ and orchestra, in other words, for something quite removed from the original in terms of tonal quality.

    Are you sure you’re not standing up for the Velvet Underground just because John Cale is Welsh? 🙂

  4. All this makes it sound like you were brought up in the 50’s and 60’s. Back then harpsichords and violas da gamba did sound bad, because people didn’t know how to play or construct them properly. Let alone in the 30’s which would be when Tommy Beecham made his clunking bon-mot.

    Obviously if you never heard a good player on a good instrument you’ll conclude that it’s all bollocks and stop listening altogether. But I have a few dozen ways to make you eat your words … perhaps I’ll bring one in tomorrow.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    If it’s grumble time then it’s more fun to grumble at your choices than list my own…

    Elvis – agreed after his short early period. The Sun Records Elvis and at least up to Heartbreak Hotel and Jailhouse Rock was great, though.

    Brahms – 4th symphony and the two piano concertos are great works, which is three more than most composers ever wrote. I wouldn’t mind Denn alles Fleisch from Deutsches Requiem played at my funeral – it’s magnificent. Careful with GB Shaw, a man who advocated the mass murder on eugenic/meme grounds of certain categories of people (but not of course Enlightened vegetarian authors).

    Period instruments – totally agree, perhaps you might care to upload the cartoon I’ve just emailed you from a 1980s Private Eye? Although I add my vote to those who prefer Bach on the harpsichord.

    Barber Shop quartets – neutral, but I can’t STAND what the Swingles Singers do to Bach.

    Folk Music – fun as it is to listen to Tom Lehrer’s devastating satires, it’s not *all* ghastly.

    Some personal hates – the triple album Yessongs, Donny Osmond’s “Puppy Love” and Jimmy Osmond’s “Long haired liver from Loverpool” (or something like that), bouzouki music (like Four Seasons it’s OK, but I had a 20-hour overdose of it on a Greek long-distance bus). And of course anything by Stockhausen and “that crowd” (to borrow another Tom Lehrer quote).

    Anton

  6. telescoper Says:

    Anton

    I’ve put your cartoon inside the post. Very good.

    Peter

    P.S. I expected you to include modern jazz in your list!

  7. John Peacock Says:

    Peter, I see where you’re coming from with your comments on period instruments, but I suspect you’ve been listening to some 1970s records. Once upon a time, the old instruments tended to sound like the modern ones played badly. But now a new generation of players (who specialise from an early age) are able to play the old instruments much better in tune than most players could manage using even modern instruments in the 1970s – standards have changed out of all recognition. And some of the old instruments have a unique sound: a baroque oboe is as different from a modern oboe as a recorder is from a flute.

    But what’s as important as the instruments is the style. A modern orchestra can now do a good job on e.g. Vivaldi because they realise you have to have light articulation and above all a clean sound that scraps the omnipresent vibrato. If anything, this change of view is even more important for singers: once you’ve heard Emma Kirkby hit a note exactly in the centre of where its pitch should be, you realise that most singers use vibrato because they can’t really sing in tune. And after that, there’s no going back. But none of this might have happened without the period-instrument fanatics starting the revolution.

    Thus, in the same vein, something anachronistic like Bach on the piano is absolutely fine, because many modern players know how to get the right style using that instrument – and even find it a help in doing so. I love the harpsichord (and one day will make you change your mind by playing you some of Kenneth Gilbert’s Couperin records) – but given the choice, I prefer Bach on the piano (at least, if Andras Schiff is playing). Equally, things like Stokowski’s Bach orchestrations are no good, not simply because they use a modern orchestra, but because they try to alter the essential character of the music.

  8. telescoper Says:

    John,

    I think Bach can be interpreted in many different ways and can survive being performed in radically different fashions because the music is so inherently beautifully formed. The structure is so solid it can stand being pulled about more than most composers’ efforts. I agree with your comments about Schiff – his recording of the 48 is truly wonderful.

    I was going to include in my rant an item about singers who can’t sing in tune. I’m probably more tolerant than most to a bit of inaccuracy, and don’t mind a bit of vibrato that much, but there is definitely some music that needs to be sung with a very clear tone. For that reason I usually hate choral music in which a female singer is used instead of a boy soprano. Very few have the purity of voice needed to make it work.

    Peter

  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: you wrote: “I usually hate choral music in which a female singer is used instead of a boy soprano. Very few have the purity of voice needed to make it work.” I believe this is mostly to do with the fact that tsopranos are expected to sing in the way they do, and are trained and selected accordingly. Also, if we’d been brought up listening to sopranos singing choral music in that way, we’d probably find choirboy versions rather dull – although I personally agree with you.
    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      At least part of the reasons opera singers sing the way they do is simply so as to produce enough sound to fill the theatre and to compete with the orchestra. If you’ve ever heard a real opera singer up close you’ll know they are astonishingly loud . A boy soprano can’t really do that – the 3 boys in the Magic Flute are very challenging roles for young kids and they are often also sung by women.

      There are women who can sing accurately and with a pure tone – Emma Kirkby being a good example – but it’s generally a big mistake just to put an opera singer in one of the parts meant for a boy soprano. It just doesn’t sound right to me. I have a recording of the Faure Requiem in which the Pie Jesu is sung by a female soprano (who I won’t name); the result is truly ghastly.

  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yes, I don’t advocate reverting to castrati…

  11. telescoper Says:

    I agree, but I can’t help feeling curious as to what a castrato would sound like…

  12. Anton Garrett Says:

    There is a 1902 recording; go to

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4853432.stm

    Anton

  13. telescoper Says:

    sounds very strange!

  14. It’s not just the high voice; the hormonal deficiencies also caused the ribs to grow longer, increasing their lung power.

  15. […] In the Dark A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « Music 101 […]

  16. @Anton: The renowned composer Hilda Tablet was said to have taken concrete steps to reviving the castrati. I doubt whether anyone else has had her nerve.

  17. – Salvation Army bands are truly magic. I have a beautiful childhood memory of a band playing carols on a grey sleet-swept promenade. Slight problem that I couldn’t have been there, but even so the memory is very clear. Why don’t they sell the Warcry in pubs any more? Always used to buy one. Maybe I go to the wrong kind of pub now.

    – crossing lines make some of the Goldberg vars. very difficult to play on single manual. None of the various ways to get over or around the technical difficulties are good. It’s a potch on the piano, no getting away from it.

    – yes JSB is remarkably robust – someone gave me a copy of Busoni’s piano arrangement of the Dminor chaconne the other day and it’s a treat to play [although I can’t believe he changed some of the chords, HE CHANGED THE CHORDS WHAT COULD HE HAVE BEEN THINKING WHEN HE DID THAT.]. The Stokowski / Micky Mouse version of the D minor thingy and fugue is OK just .. well … not very Bachy [in fairness, some say original probably not for organ, probably not in D minor and probably not by Bach anyway].

    – as for Schumann, what could you be thinking of? Schumann the German romantic tradition.

    – Liszt is the most best Romantic composer ever. Even the crap is amazingly well dished up.

    – it’s the idea of Elvis. In comparison, the real thing is always likely to disappoint.

  18. .. meant Schumann is the German romantic tradition.

  19. Bryn Jones Says:

    We must all understand that musical taste is a very personal thing. What one person likes will be very different to another person’s taste.

    I must respond to Peter’s dislikes.

    Dismissing Brahms is rather rash. Yes, the orchestration of the German Requiem is rather dense, and the string parts in some symphonies can be a bit heavy, but there is a lot of excellent music by Brahms. That includes the Requiem, which can be very beautiful, though sombre, in a good performance. If you are having trouble with Brahms, try the wonderful piano concertos. Try the first violin sonata.

    Schumann wrote a lot of excellent chamber, vocal and instrumental music. Try listening to the piano music (Kinderszenen, Carnaval) or the songs.

    I respect Berlioz: the Symphonie Fantastique was written only six years after Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, which shows how quickly Berlioz embraced the Romantic movement in music. So I respect his music. Admittedly, I don’t actually like it.

    Harpsichords lack subtlety, whereas pianos can uncover many aspects of music that harpsichords leave hidden. Give me Bach on a piano any day, and, yes, especially with Andras Schiff (for one thing, he doesn’t sing along, unlike Glenn Gould).

    As for my list of personal dislikes:

    Delius. He wrote a lot of slushy rubbish.

    The Second Viennese School. They stripped music of most of its structure, leaving little of interest. Calling their work the Second Viennese School in contrast to the work of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (taken to be the first) is pretentious. Most of their music is just rather dull. (Webern, however, understood the importance of being succint, so I leave him out of this criticism.)

    Boy sopranos. They sound weak, underpowered and fragile. Give me a woman any day (stop sniggering at the back).

    Frank Sinatra. He always sounds flat to me. Try the Franck Sonata instead.

    Early twentieth century English choral music. A lot of it is just dull. Especially Delius. (Though we could find many counter examples, such as Walton’s exciting Belshazzar’s Feast.)

    And to upset lots of people:

    W. A. Mozart (excepting the operas and string quartets). A lot of the music consists of pretty tunes packaged up in predictable ways, and then those tunes are repeated. Much of it is juvenile (literally).

    And if anybody is looking for new dislikes, you might try tonight’s 10 p.m. BBC Prom: the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain in Beethoven and Wagner, among other things. On the other hand, it might just be wonderful …

  20. Anton Garrett Says:

    Bryn,

    Yes, quite a bit of the music Mozart wrote when we was in his mid-teens is rather juvenile. Odd, that. Try the two minor key piano concertos (the second of which Beethoven thought he could never top), the overture and last 20 minutes of Don Giovanni, the bits of the Requiem actually written by Mozart, the C Minor Mass, the opening of the 39th symphony. What the mature Mozart is unsurpassed at is DRAMA.

    Anton

  21. Bryn Jones Says:

    Anton,

    I certainly do appreciate Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 (and the other of the last three symphonies), but I do have a strange problem with much of his music.

    I was present at one of Alfred Brendel’s last ever London concerts a year ago at which he perfomed a Mozart piano concerto, No. 24 in C minor, K. 491, I believe it was. Brendel played wonderfully. The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted masterfully by Bernard Haitink. The whole concert was poignant, given Brendel’s retirement. Yet I sat there unmoved. The music was performed magnificently, but it did nothing for me. The performance ended and the audienced applauded enthusiastically. Brendel returned to the stage and sat at the piano for an encore. He played a Schubert Impromptu. My eyes filled with tears after no more than a few notes. Schubert moved me tremendously, Mozart did not. Odd.

    The problem is probably with me, not Mozart. But the problem is there.

    Bryn.

    (It should be said that I do appreciate Mozart’s operas.)

  22. Nick Cross Says:

    As regards Folk singers, especially the West Country kind you mention, I have a soft spot for the Wurzels. This is partly due to the comic element, but mainly due to the fact that the dog that I grew up with was photographed with them when they toured nearby and appears on the album, ‘I am a cider drinker’. They took the photos on the farm beside where we lived, but I was only two or three at the time, so I have no memory of this, but my parents had a copy of the album even though they don’t like the music much.

    Nick

  23. telescoper Says:

    Nick,

    In the last years of his life my Dad played the drums for a band in Weymouth called “The Wellies”. They clearly modelled themselves on the Wurzels. He hated the music, but it was a nice earner as they got a lot of work in pubs and whatnot. When he died a few years ago, the rest of the band turned up for the funeral although thankfully they didn’t insist on playing.

    Peter

  24. I don’t quite agree with the business about ‘style’ and modern instruments .. Sometimes the specific sonority of a particular instrument *is* an essential part of the style, part of the message of a piece. It doesn’t always make sense to say ‘oh you can play it on another instrument as long as you keep the right style’.

    There also are specific techniques that you can use on one instrument which you can’t on another (or which don’t really work) and if the composition makes use of them you will have to mangle some aspects of it in playing it on another instrument.

    For example the pieces Miles Davis plays with harmon muted trumpet .. what would happen if you played his line on a piccolo instead? You can try all you want to do it ‘in the right style’ but it would be a totally different piece and probably lose most of its special atmosphere.

    Applying this to Bach, we seem to be saying something like ‘Bach’s music is so strong that it is perfectly OK to weaken it by playing it on instruments that won’t quite achieve the things that he envisioned that they should be doing’. For example the contrast in sound between two manuals in some harpsichord pieces can’t be done as such on the piano. Or you could try and replace it with some other contrast (for example dynamic) which might or might not work for the piece.

    If you always play certain pieces on not-quite-right instruments, you may never know what you are missing.

    ‘Harpsichords lack subtlety’? There speaks someone who never heard a good instrument and a good player.

    • telescoper Says:

      Thomas,

      I’m not sure it’s necessary always to be thinking what the composer would want, any more than one should always consider what Shakespeare would have wanted if you decide to produce one of his plays. I think it’s interesting to listen to music transcribed for instruments other than the original. Miles Davis trumpet version of the 2nd movement of Rodriguez Concerto de Aranjuez from Sketches of Spain certainly isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I don’t see anything wrong with trying to find new things that way.

      Peter

  25. […] After all the griping about musical taste  in two of my earlier posts this week(here and here), it’s probably good to put something up which I think is a masterpiece. You may, of […]

  26. John Peacock Says:

    Thomas: you say

    “Sometimes the specific sonority of a particular instrument *is* an essential part of the style, part of the message of a piece. It doesn’t always make sense to say ‘oh you can play it on another instrument as long as you keep the right style’.”

    I don’t entirely dissent. But I believe getting the style right does broaden the range of instruments you can use. 1950s Bach sounds grotesque not because non-period instruments were used, but because it’s all so slow and heavy. Once you realise Bach should dance, modern bands can do a creditable job on that music. Bach on the piano removes some sonic options that are available on the harpsichord, certainly – but I think the best modern pianists should be aware of what those effects would be, and think about how to realise them most closely on their instrument.

    But we shouldn’t be more fussy about specific instrumentation than people of the time. Bach was happy to arrange violin music for harpsichords. No doubt he would have loved the piano.

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