Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

An arrest of attention

"I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."
- Saul Bellow, Paris Review, 1966
The superb Haydn 2032 project of Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico continues with "Il Distratto", the 4th volume on the way to the complete Haydn symphonies in their historical context by the year 2032. The project has three sterling characteristics which place it at the very top of similar ongoing series by other groups: the highest musical standards (style, precision, musicality); a significant scholarly/intellectual component; and top quality presentation and marketing. I included the third volume, "Solo e Pensoso", in my Top 10 Discs of 2016. This new disc will surely end up in my 2017 list.

The disc takes its title from Haydn's 60th Symphony of 1774, which is actually a symphonic suite taken from the composer's incidental music for a revival of Le Distrait by Jean-François Regnard. This is perhaps the pinnacle of the musical joke genre, though closer to J.S. Bach than P.D.Q. Bach. It's clever and knowing, way over on the proper side of the Seinfeld-Hee Haw humour continuum. Haydn has some interesting things to say, I think, about an issue that began to be discussed for the first time in human history in the 18th century: the problem of distraction. According to sociologist Frank Furedi, the idea of distraction being a social evil relates to threats to moral authority, rather than to any new technologies or structural social changes. The Enlightenment, of course, was chock full of those threats, and there was plenty more to come in 1774. Furedi quotes the Scottish political economist William Playfair, who stated that "the inattention of the nobility to their duty was one cause of the revolution". Haydn actually quotes his own subtle challenge to moral authority, his Farewell Symphony of 1772 in this work. Much of the distraction is played for laughs, but it also provides Haydn with the opportunity to produce some arresting sounds, some that sound far, far ahead of their time. Haydn was the absolute master of building a life in which he had completely free range to exercise his artistic vision, without the compromises forced on poor Mozart or the angst that Beethoven suffered because of his own transitional social position.

Giovanni Antonini has found a perfect foil for Il Distratto in the mini-opera Il Maestro di Cappella, by Domenico Cimarosa. This is another self-aware piece that seems shockingly modern, with an orchestra that acts up, turning into one of the characters in the comedy. It reminded me of Raymond Queneau's 1968 novel The Flight of Icarus, whose main character acts up in much the same way as Cimarosa's orchestra.

In the other two Haydn symphonies included here, no. 12 and 70, there are hints of extra-musical connections. In his excellent liner notes Antonini posits that "In the ascending direction of tre soggetti of the fugal finale [of no. 70], we can glimpse a favourable omen for the erection of the new Esterhaza opera house at the laying of its founding stone - the occasion on which the symphony was first performed." So consider Haydn a proto-Oulipian, in his use of constrained musical composition to create novel forms and structures. It looks forward to the moderns, yes, but back as well to J.S. Bach's mathematical games that weave through so much of his music. The astounding thing about this music is that as clever as the games are, the final result is so artistically sound, and so often arrestingly beautiful.

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