Monday, July 20, 2015

Schubert metaconcert

Having already attended one concert (more on that later), I went back to Menlo today for a lecture by Christopher H. Gibbs, a Schubert scholar - Schubert is this year's festival theme - who collaborated with Richard Taruskin to reduce the latter's monumental Oxford History of Western Music to a one-volume edition.

Gibbs' talk was a somewhat randomized account of public concerts in Schubert's Vienna, which, he pointed out, musically was Beethoven's and Rossini's Vienna. Rossini wasn't there much in person, but his music was. (The difference between Beethoven and Rossini, he noted, was that while Rossini would make one overture do duty for four operas, Beethoven wrote four overtures to one opera.)

Public concerts in those days were unusual, though not rare, events. There were no regular venues nor performing institutions to host them. They had to be planned far in advance, and were usually planned by composer/performers or charitable organizations to raise money. Schubert only ever held one (the famous Schubertiades were private, invitational events performed by friends, not paid musicians), and he'd been talking about it in his letters for four years already.

Contrary to modern concert planning which typically brings together works for the same ensemble but from differing times and places - musical indigestion, Gibbs says - these concerts tended to be festival-like in focusing on then-modern music but of a variety of kinds. Symphony movements might be interspersed with arias or piano improvisations. He read us one concert announcement which included a violinist who would play on one string, with the violin upside down.

And audiences were expected to applaud. Frequently! If there was no applause between movements, how would the performers know which movements to repeat? After all, no recordings in those days; you might never get a chance to hear that symphony live for full orchestra again.

As for the "death" of classical music, Gibbs noted that concern over that goes back 200 years. Not that the concern is necessarily misplaced, but in quality and frequency of performances, now, not then, is the golden age.

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