Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Peaks of Western Culture

Excerpts from a recent e-mail to Fred Child, Programme Director of NPR's "Performance Today" radio broadcast:

.... [T]hanks for including the new Bach aria discovery last week (old business). Any new addition to the Bach repertoire is always welcome (and interest-provoking).

I wonder, in passing, however (and this is a general comment, not directed to you personally), whether we are not sometimes guilty of over-emphasizing every tiny jot and tittle of the music of Bach at the expense of many another, perhaps equally-worthy composer of the period. Examples of these would be Locatelli, Marcello, the Scarlattis (pere et fils), Corrette, Pergolesi, Gluck, the Benda brothers, Quantz, Boccherini, Soler, and even some of Bach's own sons--Emmanuel and Johann Christian, for example--some of these composers dating from the latter half of that century. Bach was unquestionably a giant in 18th-Century music--indeed, of all music (from our standpoint, anyway)--both intellectually and aesthetically, but if we want to be intellectually honest, we must admit that the world of such music did not begin or end with him (nor with the likes of Handel, Mozart, or Haydn--great as they admittedly were). As you will probably know (and agree), there were many others (at that time) who were far better-known and better-liked than Bach. Proper historical perspective requires that we at least acknowledge this fact.

I don't want this attempt at criticism to sound like I'm trying to devalue Bach. I actually admire and respect most, if not all, of his endeavours--even if and when I may not always find them as aesthetically-pleasing as works by other composers. Let me say, rather, that I'm only attempting to place him in proper perspective.

As to this morning's programme (about time I actually got around to the real order of business)--thanks once again, this time for the Vivaldi e-minor Violin Concerto, performed by the Venice Baroque Orchestra. I have heard this work before, from a recording by the Moscow Virtuosi, so I was familiar with it.

A word concerning this particular work, if I may:

There are from time to time moments, in the world of the fine arts, when a particular balance, harmony, and seeming-bliss of perfection is achieved. Such a moment of perfection may not always be apparent to observers at the precise instant it is revealed, but later generations (with a discerning eye) can look back and see the glorious moment of radiant perfection that was. (Schopenhauer once said something along these lines ...) Robert Schumann once described Mozart's 'great' g-minor symphony (K.550) as possessing a "Grecian lightness and grace"
(per Marc Vignal), or, as Neal Zaslaw once wrote, "the classical balance, proportions and repose of a Greek vase." This is what I'm talking about here.

The Vivaldi concerto in question here, is (in my opinion) just such a moment of perfection as I describe. I'm not a proper musicologist, so I cannot state with authority just when the work dates from, but I would guess, based on its style, that it dates from late in Vivaldi's career--i.e., the 1730s. Even if it may not, it still bears the marks of that style--a harbinger, therefore, of things to come. This work, to me, seems to be infused with the 'spiritoso' style of the 'galant' Roccoco age; it breathes a softer, more serene and contemplative air than the vigorous, virtuoso 'Baroque' Vivaldi we are accustomed to. To sum up, it is quite possibly the most sublime and elegant work I have yet heard from Vivaldi--very much worthy to be placed alongside anything by Boccherini (my true Arbiter of Elegance--even more than Haydn).

Other works I place in this same category (and not always musical examples, either) include the Parthenon in Athens, the "Winged Victory" statue of Samothrace, the "David" statue of Verrocchio (even more than the one by Michelangelo), certain poems by Keats (his "Ode on a Grecian Urn", and "To Autumn", for example), and Franz Benda's Flute Concerto in e-minor, Corrette's Flute and Keyboard Concerto (Op.26, No.6), Gluck's Reigen Seliger Geister (Dance of the Blessed Spirits) from his Orfeo ed Euridyce, Locatelli's Violin Concerto in c-minor (Op.3, No.2), Handel's Concerto Grosso in g-minor (Op.6, No.12), Marcello's Oboe Concerto in d-minor, Beethoven's 'Pastoral' Symphony (No.6), and several of Boccherini's works (too numerous to mention individually). All of these (and there are others) I consider to be profound 'high points' in our Western tradition of the arts and culture, which we have inherited from Greece and Rome. It is sad and much to be regretted, I think, that these (and other) important examples of cultural excellence in our history and tradition are so much ignored, devalued, and neglected as they are today by so many people--particularly the young, who are our future [i.e., the 'hip-hop' generation]. Mine is almost a lone voice "crying in the wilderness," I think;
a modern-day Boethius regretting the passing and loss of so much excellence, beauty and wisdom from his day and age. [Sic transit gloria mundi .... thus passes the glory of the world.]