The first year after my doctorate was 1990-91, and I had a one-year piano position at the University of Richmond, a liberal arts college in Richmond, VA. Still unclear as to whether I would end up a pianist or a musicologist, I decided to Do It Right, putting a schedule up on my door with every hour blocked out, as studio teachers do. The top few students (appropriately irreverent students they were) in my studio then posted, right next to it, a satirical version that had little squares filled in with things like “Monday, 9-10 PM: spend yet MORE time on the VAX” (the Mesozoic mainframe on which I had just learned to do E-Mail; my wife and I were spending the year 3000 miles apart) and “Wednesday, 8-9 PM: sit around listening to albums that have been out of print for fifteen years.” Ouch! I thought I was being all relevant and au courant with my interest in (and frequent citations of) rock music, and one of the students, a rock historian himself, had me dead to rights. My taste was pre-disco, pre-punk, and thus positively archaic in 1990-91.
This past week I bought Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, which was originally released in 1972. I never owned that one, so there’s a sense of both learning new music and, because the idiom is old and familiar, knowing I’ll like it, which indeed I do. Perhaps it’s really as wonderful as I think, or perhaps it’s just the songs of my youth and ya hadda be there, I don’t know, but there is something about early 1970s Art Rock that I really love. So, here’s Ian Anderson’s rather nastily slanted satire on English life (note especially the fake newspaper on the album-jacket-now-CD-notes). As a bonus track there’s an interview in which Anderson avers that contrary to popular belief, the songs were individually conceived, not part of a concept at all. Further, he says, he wrote much of the material the mornings before they started rehearsing it, and it was just a satire (era of Monty Python, though the Americans didn’t get it so well—perhaps because Monty Python was hilarious and this was really acidic, Ian), they stitched things together and worked out the structure in the studio with everyone’s ideas, etc.
Yet in the early 1970s, as I recall, overall structure Was Not Questioned. The way a Tull or an ELP or an ELO (the first four, when they were good) or a Rick Wakeman album worked was not questioned. Often there was repeated material, reminiscences, transitions, and so on; we thought it was Deep and Serious and Classical as, indeed, the record companies and bands probably wanted us to think. (Mike Oldfield is another example of the uninterrupted album side, though I never listened to him as much.) The bands themselves were probably gluing this stuff together in the studios and occasionally referencing whatever classical music structures they’d picked up in “O” levels and art school—these were almost exclusively Brits after all. For us, it worked, and the structures were considered to have a sense or inevitability or (almost) inherent organicism. We acquired them and learned them, through repeated listenings.
Comic relief: I still have my copy of Horslips’ (an Irish Band) The Book of Invasions, a concept album based on remanufactured ancient celtiana about fairies and so on, and consisting (as I recall) of bland pop songs, which were not their usual fare. (I can’t believe it was reissued.) Obediently, I gave it the same treatment, repeated listenings, assuming I needed to “know” it. (The scales fall from my eyes: I realize this very instant that I was apparently already a dull little drone studying for his doctoral comprehensives long before I knew what doctoral comprehensives were, or what The Repertoire Was.) I haven’t had the courage to put it on in more than twenty years.
So here’s the question: What of the large-scale structures of the music we play and study most, of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? We very rarely dare to question the large forms of Beethoven (death penalty here), Schubert (we explain the “heavenly lengths,” to use Schumann’s term, but don’t criticize them), Schumann, or (for pity’s sake) Bruckner. Rather, though they might have been criticized at the time, we simply study the pieces until we can justify/convince ourselves of their inherent rightness, that they couldn’t be a note shorter, etc. I am not the first to observe that there is a strong streak of fundamentalism in the view of art music where not one note is imagined to be out of place. Our assumption is that every work in the performing repertoire possesses organic structure and narrative inevitability, and it only remains to understand it—not question it. For performers it’s even more straitening: even if some ornamentation or variation was expected at the time, who the devil do you think you are, young man? Don’t you DARE add an ornamental figure, or double that in octaves!
Meaning no disrespect: asking contemporary composers about it is probably not going to help. A contemporary composer writes in the shadow of The Repertoire (e.g. Brahms’s Beethoven reference, the “the tramp of a giant behind me”), and does not depend on those compositions for his or her livelihood; rather, there are university positions, grants, commissions, and so on. Virtually no contemporary composer answers to the audience, which on some level even Beethoven had to—consider the December 1808 Academy concert he put on, with premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Fourth Piano Concerto, among other works. Please like my music and pay me to write more! I cannot imagine that a university composer who sticks his figurative thumbs in his figurative vest and begins, “When I organize a large form, I…” is really talking about the same thing, because the real entertainment, even for most educated listeners, is no longer a part of the equation.
The persistent question for me is whether there was not more chaos and cobbling-together and chickenwire-and-spit than we suspect in the minds of the Great Composers as they organized their work, particularly given the pressures of impending performances and deadlines and the necessity of giving performers their parts. We treat our beloved Great Works as holy writ, black fire on white fire (as one mystical tradition describes sacred writing), but I have the nagging suspicion that there was far more “well, this is the best I can do at the moment, gotta push on.” Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, with the revised versions of the last three movements, is but one example.
How beyond reproach is every last piece in our repertoire, after all? How truly inevitable the large forms?
Please excuse the length of this blog, to paraphrase Mendelssohn, but I haven’t time to make it shorter.
P.S. If anyone knows how to get the piano quintet version of “Reasons for Waiting” I heard Tull keyboardist John Evan perform with a string quartet while the rest of the band was taking a break on the War Child tour (1974), I’d be grateful—I’d put that on a chamber music concert in a second.