Chamber bonbon or Political Statement?

Jonathan Bellman

Last January I put offered a blog about John Williams’s Air and Simple Gifts, an attractive and enjoyable chamber piece played by Yo-Yo Ma and friends for President Obama’s inauguration. This composition (“Air”) and arrangement (of the Shaker tune “Simple
Gifts”) has been published, I’m happy to say: Copyright 2009 by MARJER PUBLISHING, under the Hal Leonard imprint.  Here’s the performance
(or miming, since it was fifteen degrees out and what we heard was a recording), on youtube.

I will be curious to see if this piece begins to appear on chamber music programs; it has the sort of sound many audiences would appreciate, and is probably very grateful to play.  It is a chamber piece—all classical instruments, in fact (as I pointed out before) the Quartet for the End of Time ensemble: piano, violin, cello, B-Flat clarinet.  What is the likelihood that a piece for that ensemble would gain a currency and familiarity outside the highly limited classical/academic chamber music environment?

Side question: and will there be some political ramifications to playing it?  Despite the President’s care, resilience, and single-minded attempts to engage most shades of the political spectrum, the—well, Death-Eaters, for lack of a better term—are still hell-bent on obstructing any possible change, accomplishment, improvement, or invigoration of American society and culture.  One or two of the possible causes for this are too painful to contemplate, so I’m not going there, but is worth asking if playing Williams’s short appetizer or dessert of sweet Americana would be taken as a political statement in certain areas of the United States, resented (or even proscribed) as a partisan declaration.

Of course, you’d have to be an idiot to make this argument seriously: it was a commissioned inauguration piece for a duly elected American president, and the fact that it’s on the market means that it’s not rental-only—so, the composer seems to be saying, go play it and have a nice time.  Still, consider the level of discussion on various pressing issues we’ve seen in the press and on cable TV and from (let’s say) certain legislators.  Such stupidity is not at all outside the realm of possibility.

My feeling?  Give it to all your student groups.  Play it all night long, as Warren Zevon put it (in a very different context).  Perform it, all over, until we’re sick of it.  The last “classical” (qualifying quotation marks are intentional) piece to be a hit was Rachmaninov’s C-Sharp Minor Prelude, right?  That was published in 1892, but quite a hit in the U.S. during the flapper era.  Or perhaps we should count Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924).  Fact is, though, it doesn’t happen very often.  I think it would be a worthwhile experiment.

And then let’s see what Michael Steele, John Boehner et al. trot out as a response.  Which country star will it be, do you think?  Or will it be something with Mike Huckabee on bass?  Lee Atwater: The Dungeon Tapes?  John Ashcroft singing “Let the Eagle Soar,” only this time with electronica background?

Or laugh track?

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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10 Responses to Chamber bonbon or Political Statement?

  1. kariann says:

    I think the Harry Potter metaphor is spot-on. I think Simple Gifts will lose all associations with the Obama administration in about 10 years.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Wow, so much is odd about this post.
    1) Why do you you use “blog” as synonym for “blog post?” It’s not a usage I’ve seen very often outside of your “blogs.” I’m honestly curious, because I respect your work a lot and know you to be an experienced writer.
    2) It’s amusing to me that you still want to take some credit for noting Williams’ use of the “Messiaen ensemble,” as if this were some sort of discovery. It had been pointed out many times before your first blog post and would have been obvious to just about anyone who knows the very famous Messiaen piece.
    3) The funniest thing is how you create out of your imagination a hateful response to this piece (a strawman made from imaginary straw), then make fun of that imaginary response as being ridiculous because there’s nothing political about the music (I agree), and then make it quite clear that you essentially would consider it a political act to perform the piece. My head’s spinning.
    4) Oddest of all is that you honestly seem to think this is a superlative composition. There’s nothing wrong with that, and you’re of course entitled to your opinion, but I think you’d have a hard time finding many others who agree that this is a great work deserving of extra special exposure or that it’s particularly well-suited to become a big “hit.”
    P.S. Of course it’s true that one can easily find lunatic political viewpoints out there – they exist on both sides and President Bush (whatever you may think of him) was unquestionably subjected to an enormous amount of pure hate. I’m not defending anyone here.

  3. Kyle L says:

    I’ve already seen a performance of the quartet. It was in May I think. I was rather dissappointed with it actually. I liked it when I heard it on inauguration day, but there lies the problem. I think I was more receptive of it during that day because of the extra-musical associations going on. While hearing it on a different occasion in a small concert hall made me see it what it really was.
    Oh, and it’s companion only the program wasn’t Messiaen, but Pierrot lunaire. Odd right?

  4. Phil Ford says:

    Yo, anonymoe . . .
    This is one of those comments where everything is very “amusing” and “curious,” and where things are the funniest and oddest and one’s head is supposed to spin at the funniness and oddness of it all. The impression we’re meant to carry away from your comment is that this blog post (but Jonathan doesn’t even call it that! haha!) registers the decline of a once-fine writer — a decline you deplore, though only a little, just enough to summon an arch chuckle.
    Such pretense. Generally when people write about how much they’re laughing at something they’re not amused at all. You say “I’m not defending anyone here,” but somehow I get the sense that you have someone or something you do want to defend. What, then?
    It is actually possible for something to maintain a certain political function while itself not holding any intrinsic political meaning. That’s generally how political meanings work. Teabags don’t mean “tax rebellion”, but they were given that meaning by the conservative activists who organized those “Tea Party” protests. The meaning sticks in some contexts, not in others. I don’t think about guys in foam three-corner hats waving “Obama=Socialist” signs when I make a cup of tea. But nevertheless everyone who watches the news knows what a “teabagger” is and understands the intended symbolism. Some symbols are more pervasive. It’s pretty hard to look at a swastika (even something completely innocuous, like the one on the chest of the massive 8th-century bronze Buddha at the Royal Ontario Museum) without thinking “Nazi.” It’s hard to hear “Candle in the Wind” without thinking of Princess Di. Some attempts at branding are more effective than others. The well-worn line about how “the music itself doesn’t mean anything political” is true but misleading. There’s “the music itself,” and there’s the branding. The two aren’t the same, and they’re not completely separate, either.

  5. Ralph Locke says:

    Jonathan B. writes: ‘The last “classical” (qualifying quotation marks are intentional) piece to be a hit was Rachmaninov’s C-Sharp Minor Prelude, right?’
    He then adds Rhapsody in Blue.
    It all depends on what one means by a hit, but there’s also Ravel’s Bolero, the Khachaturian Sabre Dance (which rose high on the record charts in its version by the Boston Pops and also got done by Woody Herman, as I recall).
    And of course there are some pieces that became (and remain today) immensely familiar from their use in movies and/or their quotation by pop and rock performers: Barber Adagio, Orff Carmina Burana, Copland Fanfare for the Common Man and, errrr, his Simple Gifts arrangement from Appalachian Spring. Not to speak of older ones (which was not what JB was asking about), such as the Pachelbel Canon, Rondo alla turca, and Beethoven Ninth.
    There’s all kinds of ways a piece can become a hit (i.e., widely disseminated in the general population, adapted in different styles, promoted by different branches of the music industry). Music by serious composers has not been left out of this process since Gershwin’s day as totally as Jonathan’s blog post suggests.
    Still, I like his ending suggestion of possible, somewhat freaky, matchups between (pop) performer and (classical) work….

  6. squashed says:

    “What is the likelihood that a piece for that ensemble would gain a currency and familiarity outside the highly limited classical/academic chamber music environment?”
    I would say, nearly zero. Probably small section of avant rock fans, less than few hundred albums sold maybe. Few dozen extra if some NPR station plays it.
    It might have one or two more sections of audience if some very talented DJ, remix it. (but illbient is also highly arcane electronic show.)
    The biggest chance would be as soundtrack of an insanely modern and hip film. (say, repeat most melodious section few times over and over on different scenes…) This could go few thousands albums. But as a stand alone composition, it’ll be confined to small circle.
    “Side question: and will there be some political ramifications to playing it? ”
    I doubt it. probably some idiot will say it’s elitist or digging up composer past ideological association, etc. But musically? Way over most people’s heads.
    (It has no hook, too slow, no beat pattern to remember, weird mode … yes… basically, it’s not in some cheesy late romantic/grand nationalism style. The last time classical music actually target the big mass out there. Sorry ranting. 😀 but that’s true. Somebody needs to kick big composers out on the street and get to know average music listeners again.)

  7. squashed says:

    …oh and no vocal & lyrics. 😀 That’s actually a big one for average folks.’ just saying from my blogging experience. So, pretty fringe opinion.

  8. David Cavlovic says:

    Aren’t there political ramifications to Lincoln Portrait, or Wellington’s Victory, or anything by Hans Eisler?

  9. Besides the other classical hits Ralph mentions, Jonathan forgot the highest selling classical record ever, Gorecki’s Third Symphony. Definitely a hit.

  10. squashed says:

    There is only one album by Gorecki that sell well. The one released by Nonesuch (gigantic big budget release. with wide promo)
    If you look at list and punch in Gorecki 3. That’s the only album by him that sell well. The rest is way on the bottom rank. No other work, not even same piece done by other symphony or released by other labels sell.
    (Yeah, I know amazon, is not precise and this type of market analysis vs. popularity is icky. But I bet if anybody can get a total album sale, it will say about the same thing.)
    bottom line:
    1. big budget promotion
    2. shiny big names
    3. vocal/choral/anything bombastic
    4. easy to contextualized work.
    Here is an experiment. Rearrange that John Williams work in giant choir work. cut it into section with intriguing title (gotta read nice on CD track display). Give it a spiffy CD cover (semi nude sexy ladies, research the target market, there is always that aspect.) Big budget promo/movie soundtrack/ some BS sappy-tear jerker-larger than human narrative. Big names splatter all over the CD cover.
    Plus well executed performance and studio engineering.
    voila… It will probably compete with minor top chart pop album.

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