Monday, January 23, 2006

#109 - Why Baroque is Baroquen

David B. over at The Whole Note admirably discusses the virtues of Baroque music and some of the key composers (or, if you will, decomposers) of that period.

I have only one problem with most music of the Baroque: It was impossible for Baroque composers to write anything (and I mean anything) without creating some sort of melismatic nightmare for tenors ultimately resulting in the tenors suffering nosebleeds due to extreme heights. Seems tenors in those days were almost universally surgically altered, and I refuse to go that way.

I once performed for a director I shall refer to only as "He Who Must Not Be Named, But With Whom My Family Is All Too Well Acquainted" (HWMNBNBWWMFIATWA, for short). This was in the day when I was relatively fresh out of high school and still had chops capable of stratospheric notes (tenoric stratosphere = anything higher than a G) without passing out. Most unfortunately, this conductor had chosen to perform the Schutz "Magnificat" which requires, of all things, a counter-tenor. He apparently felt I was the next best thing. So we performed this masterpiece - twice - with me screeching along in falsetto and taking hits from an oxygen tank in between arias. I spent the next two months trying to coax my voice out of hiding. It had taken refuge in some cave or other, and refused point-blank to come out.

I have never forgiven the man.

That aside, I will concede to David's interpretation of the magic of the Baroque repertoire. To a point. And that point, for me, would be the Romantic period.

It may be a function of age, but I have found in the last decade or so that I identify much more readily with the Romantic composers than I do the Baroque variety. Perhaps it's because, at my age and relative physique, I'm readier to enjoy having my emotions handed to me musically, rather than being forced to run an obstacle course to find them.

Granted, this comes from one who enjoys singing "The Messiah" every Christmas and still gets a thrill listening to Bach's "Christ Lag in Todesbanden" as often as occasion permits. But once I found that I had a voice capable of interpreting a Schubert art song without offending too many sensibilities, I never looked back. I am a convert, and delighted to be such.

When I consider the several masterworks that I have been privileged to perform over the years, few have touched me as deeply as, say, the "German Requiem" by Brahms. Such music is still musically challenging, and much of it can certainly be just as athletic as its Baroque antecedents (can you say "Polovtsian Dances?"), but I find the Romantic style to be a comfortable fit for me. Very much like a favorite pair of shoes, or a well-worn easy chair. It just fits.

Here, too, the nationality of the composer only enhances the experience. For example, except for certain stylistic differences, there's very little that sets music by Vivaldi apart from music by Handel or Bach. In fact, take the masters out of the mix, and I quite frankly can't tell them apart. The Romantics, on the other hand, wrote music that defined not only their moods but their native lands as well. Russian Romantics are easily distinguished from the Germans and the Italians. The French (such as they were) are also easily identified. But each style has its own pull on my subconscious and draws me into its story.

My current watch list includes Peer Gynt. I'm looking for a definitive recording that I can get my hands on. Grieg's music was the stuff that first got me interested in conducting way back when Dad got me a "Music Minus One" recording. It even came with a baton, which I worked into oblivion every chance I got. Heady stuff for a fifteen-year old.

Just random thoughts for a Monday morning, but it's David's fault. Blame him.

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