By Bob Litton and J.L.V.
I have a real change of format to present to you today—a unique one as far as this blog is concerned: it is a dialogue between two men who have never met and never had a verbal conversation. Oh, what wonders the Internet has wrought!!!
But first, as usual, a little backstory.
Every other Friday morning, my artist friend Chris comes over to my apartment for a couple of hours of coffee and wide-ranging conversation. Our usual topics are my writing and Chris’ art (primarily comics), but we also wander on to literature, music, TV shows, Chris’ home improvement projects, and a sprinkling of politics.
In mid-March, Chris and I had an intriguing discussion of various questions involving classical music. Neither of us really felt confident to answer my questions. However, Chris suggested we ask his uncle in Louisiana, a professor emeritus of music whose own specialty is the bassoon. That afternoon, I emailed to my friend a list of the questions I had raised, and Chris forwarded them to his uncle J.L.V.
The professor did not respond until April 6 for reasons he supplies in the first of his half of this dialogue.
I was so pleased by J.L.V.’s informative and even, in some places, amusing comments that I asked Chris to request from his uncle permission for me to use them in a blog post, which J.L.V graciously granted.
Below is the result.
First, my email to Chris:
Hi again, Chris —
Here are the issues/questions regarding music we discussed this morning:
(1) Why is it that violins—particularly scratchy violin solos—dominate music performances? What makes a scratchy violin sound appealing to some people? A mass of violins working as “backup” I can appreciate, but hardly any solo or duet of violins is tolerable anymore. Tchaikovsky’s violin pieces are particularly grating.
(2) Why are the majority of classical works—e.g., Beethoven symphonies—heavy-sounding? Is loudness a true value? Or is it just to make sure the percussion section has something to contribute? Or are the composers naturally as angry as Beethoven is always depicted in busts and drawings?
(3) The oboe (or English horn) in the second movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez performs some of the loveliest phrases of that adagio. The whole concerto is a masterpiece, though, and I do not wish to imply differently by emphasizing the oboe. My question is, is that an oboe there or an English horn?∗ I haven’t been able to distinguish much from the pictures I found in a Google search. All I can tell is that one is slightly larger than the other and produces a sound one octave lower(?).
(4) The Russian composers are my favorites, especially Rachmaninoff. (I even like some of Tchaikovsky’s works: parts of his Swan Lake ballet are enjoyable.) I read that Rachmaninoff had an alcoholic, wastrel father who left the home after losing five estates to gambling and profligacy, thereby cheering up everybody. Was Rachmaninoff angry at his father his whole life, and did he express that anger in his music? His compositions are incredibly dynamic, but I can’t discern whether that energy is due to anger or to a hyper libido. Much passion there!!! Or was Rachmaninoff perhaps simply composing difficult, fast and loud works to show off his superior pianist’s skill?
* * * * * *
Well, Chris, I hope your uncle doesn’t find these questions too sophomoric to bother with.
Now, the professor’s response:
I got a response from my uncle!
Sorry I have taken so long to answer this. I could pretend that I have been too busy, but the fact is, I didn’t know what to say, and I still don’t. I will try to make some comments, however.
1. On scratchy violins: In the movie “The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr.T” , the evil piano teacher has imprisoned all the orchestra musicians with their “scratchy violins, screechy piccolos, nauseating trumpets”. Violins have been the primary instruments in the orchestra ever since Lully, the court musician for Louis XIV, organized the first professional orchestra: “The Twenty-Four Violins of the King”.
Like most orchestral instruments, violins are capable of many different sounds, and some of them are accented at the beginning of the tone. (scratchy). Pipe organs often have some ranks of pipes voiced with a short huff or pop, called chiff, at the beginning of the tone. I think most people like most of the sounds violins make (even the scratchy ones).
2. Is loudness a true value? I think historically it has been. Instrumental music in the renaissance was played on fairly soft instruments: lutes, viols, recorders, etc. Even the “loud instruments” – shawms and sackbutts – were not as loud as modern trombones etc. The violin dominated 18th century music because it was louder than the viols: Dryden’s “Ode on St Cecelia’s Day” has the line “sharp violins proclaim their jealous pangs and indignation”, and symphony orchestras were exciting because they were the loudest thing around. In the 19th century, the military band (think Sousa) became very popular, in part because its massed brasses and woodwinds were louder than the orchestra’s violins. Now, of course we have rock bands with their amplified guitars and drum sets. Percussion instruments in the orchestra were generally limited to kettledrums until the 19th century.
3. I am not familiar with Rodrigo’s Concierto, but regarding the oboe and English horn, the oboe is just under two feet long and has a small, flared bell at the lower end. The English horn is closer to three feet long and has a bulb-shaped lower end. It also has a short pipe at the top which holds the reed at a small angle, so it is not blown straight into. It sounds a fifth (half an octave) lower than the oboe.
4. Regarding the anger of composers, I don’t think they are so much angry as striving for excitement. They write music which is loud, fast, and intricate in order to convey excitement and “Wow” their audiences, as entertainers have strived to do for millennia. They use whatever tools are at their disposal, whether it be a violin, grand piano, or electric guitar. We now have tools which can play music so fast and intricately that it is indecipherable, and loud enough to deafen us. For many years I taught a music course in which I required my students to attend concerts, most of which were of classical music, and to write reports on them. These non-music majors were so steeped in the popular genres (rock, etc.) that they thought ALL classical music was “soothing”, even the “Dies Irae” from the Verdi Requiem!
I don’t think I answered your questions, but I hope my answers are interesting and/or useful.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
∗ In my email requesting permission to use J.L.V.’s comments I had included the YouTube URL to guitarist John Williams and the BBC Orchestra’s performance of Concierto de Aranjues. I also specified which musician was playing, in the second movement, the instrument I was curious about. And in J.L.V.’s permission email he said it is the English horn.