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REAL MUSIC …. OR JUST FOR SHOW? ... Arthur Butterworth

Many opera composers of the golden age of ‘bel canto’ were more or less successful according to how willing they might be to subjugate their personal creative individualities to the demands of the vanity of prima donnas. This would involve devising musical show-pieces that, before anything else, would be specifically intended to allow the singer to indulge in vocal antics to demonstrate how good she was. It was sometimes said that singers would sulk and throw tantrums if the solo role allotted to them lacked opportunity to show off. This gave rise to lots of vapid, empty operatic music that might well have pleased an undiscriminating, empty-headed audience (like so many of those at pop concerts today), but much of it was ephemeral and soon consigned to oblivion. But the music of truly great operas composers - Mozart, Puccini, Verdi perhaps - always had something more than technique for its own sake, and this is why we still remember it.

Instrumental music also has had its prima donnas: especially pianists and violinists. In the concerto repertoire there has always been an element of virtuosity for its own sake and, it would seem, obsequious composers who have been willing to satisfy this vanity. Sometimes of course the composer has done this to show off his own dazzling - but often empty - technical wizardry. Paganini and Liszt come to mind in this respect. Some instruments, by their nature and essential function, (the violin has already been mentioned) such as the ’cello, flute, clarinet and horn are natural exponents of melody, and are appropriate for the purpose. Other instruments, again by their individual nature, appear to have evolved primarily, not so much for a leading melodic purpose but to provide an equally essential foundation — a bass part — or other inner harmonies.

However, these instruments demand equal technical prowess as does the violin, ’cello or flute. Their specialised functions require just as much mastery. It is just as necessary to have accomplished performers on these less demonstrative accompanying instruments. This is required in much the same way that it is essential to have reliable and competent anaesthetists as well as distinguished surgeons. At one time players on these instruments were content enough to fulfil such subsidiary roles although they have always felt the challenge of what might be achieved with their instruments were opportunities forthcoming. Such performers have become celebrated in the history of music, notable among them being Prospère, the ophicleide player in the 1840s who made his instrument remarkably popular.

Probably the most celebrated of all such performers were the double-bass players, Dragonetti (1763-1846) and Bottesini (1821-1889) both of whom were able to demonstrate that the double-bass could do more than just provide the fundamental "base" of the orchestral edifice. Both were composers for their own instrument, Bottesini contributing some well-known solo pieces still played to this day, as well as operas and oratorio.

With the general evolution of technique in recent decades there have arisen solo roles for other instruments that, in earlier times, might not have been thought of as melodic soloists: brass instruments more especially so. Many of the composers providing such new solo material have themselves been accomplished performers on the instrument for which they have written. The prime purpose might well have been to furnish good teaching material.

In this respect the Paris Conservatoire probably led the way in demanding specialised and original music for all the instruments taught there. However, by their very nature specialists have always had an enthusiasm for their particular instrument that it is perhaps unreasonable to expect the general music lover to have. A lot of this solo music is only of interest to the player: it is designed with technical rather than purely musical purpose in mind. Consequently, being motivated by the exploration of technique rather than true musical inspiration, it often leaves the listener unmoved. There exists music of this kind even for the piano, such as the volumes of technical studies by Czerny, Burgmüller and other pedagogues, though few of these composers aspired to acclaim as composers for the concert hall. Some virtuosic executant artists however, certainly did: Paganini’s violin concertos provide dazzling displays of what is possible on the violin, but this in no way means that it is good as music.

In the field of brass music the trumpet was, in baroque times, a melodic instrument of the very front rank, leading the ensemble in heroic paeans of sound. In the same way the trombone had a long and venerable heritage especially in association with ecclesiastical choral music. Their decline in the classical age that followed must have been perplexing. Only the horn, that most romantic of instruments, was felt to be appropriate to the new age once the high-flown baroque had become unfashionable. The gradual emergence of a new brass ethos from about the latter part of the nineteenth century took a rather different direction:

One of the results of this was the emergence of the brass band.

The cornet and euphonium are the prima donnas; the counterparts of the violin and ’cello in the orchestra. Apart from its older, outdoor indigenous martial associations, the brass band, curiously enough, has tended to be possessed of a lyrical nature, which, at first sight, perhaps would not be thought characteristic of the robust sounds of brass. As a consequence some of the music frequently associated with it sometimes seems incongruous. This might be particularly the case with solo music rather than that for full ensemble. Much of this gives the impression of being designed — like the early operatic arias for Italian divas — merely to show off technique rather than for a genuinely emotional and expressive purpose.

Some years ago I was accosted by a well-known brass player who remarked that my music was "not of much appeal to bands because it lacked technical challenge". I suggested that perhaps he considered that Paganini was a better composer than Mozart because Paganini’s concertos were full of dazzling fireworks, which Mozart’s did not possess. To see the purpose of music as being primarily one of empty technical display to gratify a performer's vanity is to miss the whole point of music as an art; it indicates a shallow, vapid intellect.

Throughout musical history there have been virtuoso-performers who have written display pieces for their own instrument, essentially to show off their own accomplishment. Many of these have continued to hold fascination and offer challenges to later devotees of a particular instrument, but they ought to be seen for what they are: mere technical studies. Real music has always had a deeper, profound and more ‘telling’ purpose; it is not necessarily technically demanding.

The Brahms piano concertos constitute some of the most difficult and technically demanding of all works for the piano, but they were written by a composer who was not only himself a most prodigious pianist, but also one of the greatest composers who ever lived. His utterances are profound and lofty in the extreme. By comparison Liszt, who was undoubtedly one of the most accomplished pianists of the 19th century, was a third-rate composer, dazzled by his own ego. Similarly, Bottesini, whose bass playing astonished audiences of the mid-nineteenth century, composed music, although of dazzling virtuosity, which ultimately has not been found to be of much memorable substance.

There is always a place for some measure of virtuosic display in a concerto: it is the means whereby a solo voice can be pitted against the crowd, like the single orator appealing to the masses. The solo part in a concerto demonstrates what a lone adventurer can do: extending the possibilities of development of a musical theme, much in the same way that the polar explorer, being capable of determination and stamina, can achieve things not possible by the package-tour crowd. But, like the political orator who needs to have true eloquence to persuade his listeners, the soloist needs to have something of musical significance to contribute, not just empty rhetoric.

Arthur Butterworth © January 2004

Arthur Butterworth Writes....


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