Classical Music

The Top Ten in the Hottest 100 Classical of the 20th Century

I should have known this week would be dedicated to blogging about the ABC Classic Hottest 100 Classical of the 20th Century. My mind has been filled with the glories that are currently playing – even the Shostakovich “Leningrad” Symphony’s presence in the 50s is cool to me. But, here are my predictions for the Top Ten – which has a lot in common with Jonathan Powles’ list.  This is in no particular order.

Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue. This is fusion music that is actually cool. And performed by one of the greatest figures in 20th Century music. Bernstein’s legacy will last far longer than conductors like Herbert von Karajan.

Orff – Carmina Burana.  This is a Big Song.  Performed by all the most wonderful performers… and this bloke.

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No. 3. I am hedging my bets here and wondering if No. 2 will be up there as well or instead of this. However, I suspect its dominance of the film Shine will help the “concerto for elephants” to the Top 10.

Copland – Fanfare for the Common Man. This song gets regular airings on radio – especially in past years, as well as TV sport coverage.  First version – the original. The second version – Woody Herman

Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending. One of most beautiful masterpieces of the century, and ceaselessly popular. Don’t worry – no Rieu this time. Choose between the attractive female violinists or the male violinist inside the cathedral.

Holst – The Planets. I think John Williams need to pay the Holst estate for taking ideas from this suite for his soundtracks. Here is my favourite movement – Uranus, conducted by Australia’s first great exported conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras.

Mahler – Symphony No. 5. Having had the other 20th Century Mahlers in the 50s and 60s, I’m not as sure about this one as I was when the countdown started. But here it remains – largely for the Adagietto

Prokofiev – Peter and the Wolf. This work is probably where a lot of children receive their musical education – that’s because it’s fun. And this is the best video of same – with Sting and the Rubbery Figures.

Barber – Adagio for Strings. One of the most performed works through films, TV and on the radio, there is probably little chance this won’t be near the top.

Elgar – Cello Concerto  I’m stuck for the last one, because I’d like to think Shostakovich, with the 5th Symphony and Stravinsky, with the Rite of Spring (not Firebird) would be in the list. But I think, considering the presence already of many British composers, that the Elgar Cello Concerto will make it and it will be the Jacqueline du Pre version with John Barbirolli that will be played. That’s why someone else is playing it here. The Lloyd Webber who plays music.

Postscript. My partner, @clairebbbear has asked me, as soon as I wrote the first version of this, why I put Fanfare for the Common Man in the Top Ten instead of Ravel – Bolero. So, I’m going to put in a reference to it. I loathe and detest Blaro, but it probably will be in the Top Ten.

Classical Music

What IS Classical Music? It’s not Andrew Lloyd Webber

As readers of the blog could tell, I was excited about the arrival of the Hottest 100 Classical countdown for the music of the 20th Century – because in many ways, it’s been my favourite century in terms of art music. It’s been the century that has seen composers really play with tone colour, rhythms and structure as well as use percussion much better than any other century. The countdown was going to reflect that diversity.

The countdown, however, has reflected another trait of the 20th Century I don’t like – watering down the definition of “classical” music. Allowing fusion, crossover stuff into the definition. Therefore, they have allowed soundtracks like Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings to be part of the list. There are plenty of people who apply the post-structuralist definition to the categorisation of classical music – that anything that tells a story with orchestral instruments is classical music ; that rap or pop music that uses strings is ok ; that Shostakovich wrote film music ; Beethoven wrote incidental music for theatre and so on. That seems to be what has happened here. It’s not on.

To many, including me, “classical” music is art music composed by people wanting to produce abstract music that communicates something about the world around us.  That means that it not something that is simply designed to go with action on a screen or just merely something that uses instruments that orchestras use.  Sometimes incidental music goes beyond its original purpose and achieves that end – Peer Gynt and the Lieutenant Kije music comes to mind. The problem comes that now with the list produced via the fuzzy definition from ABC Classic that it will feature all sorts of popular music that happens to use instruments associated with classical music. I now expect things like Michael Nyman’s The Piano (which I will instantly switch off – listening to more than 30 seconds of that is the equivalent of waterboarding to me) and the music from Amelie to be on the list.  I also expect musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber to appear – even though they are just recycled pap from whichever rock musician he was listening to at the time (listen to Evita and tell me that isn’t just Meatloaf reused).

It’s disappointing because we know what movie soundtracks and modern musicals are popular and we can hear them everywhere. I was hoping the list would feature music that people haven’t heard as much and is composed by people whose lives were dedicated to communicating emotional outpourings from their soul, rather than to primarily make money and add to the profits of Hollywood. It will also confirm the suspicion I have that most of the listeners of ABC Classic like hearing music that merely recycles the styles and sounds of the 19th Century (eg. Lord of the Rings) rather than provide a fresh perspective from the 20th.

It shouldn’t be surprising, really. ABC Classic has turned into an easy listening station, especially during breakfast and drive. Lots of guitar music and fusion – as well as modern recycling of old forms, such as John Tavener. Middle of the Road stuff. To me, that’s not easy listening – it’s sugar coated, endlessly upbeat choons that avoid the pain and torment that classical composers have revealed about our society, especially in the 20th Century.

In reality, I stopped listening regularly to ABC FM soon after the end of the Just Out program hosted by the irascible Englishman Martin Hibble. He was the music world’s equivalent to David Stratton. The program featured new recordings, played in full, often, on a Saturday afternoon. He had no problem in ripping them to shreds if he felt it warranted or provide effusive praise – providing detailed reasons. It was fantastic. I was shocked when the ABC removed the program and new recordings were given positive, facile reviews late on a Tuesday night.  In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The audience don’t seem to like opinions or anything that’s not mawkishly positive. Hence the disappearance of Clive Robertson from Breakfast.

In criticising the changing profile of ABC Classic – I’m not criticising the professionalism and style of the presenters.  For example, Emma Ayres seems lovely – but the music to me lacks the edge and bite of previous years.  And when presenters of the countdown say things like “Andrew Lloyd Webber has been hugely influential” and “Phantom of the Opera is great music”, that confirms to me why exactly what ABC Classic FM has become and what this countdown list will yield. Perhaps we need someone to start an online classical radio station that features the good stuff.

Classical Music

Symphonies in the The Hottest 100 20th Century

Yesterday, I made some suggestions for the Hottest 100 countdown of the “classical” music of the 20th Century. I received the highest ever reader numbers for one of my classical music blogs, so I’m pretty happy about that – as well as nice compliments. However, I also received questions – such as, which symphonies do I think will make it? I realised that the first post was a bit rushed – so here are some predictions as to the symphonies. This is the century that too the “symphony” and bent it completely out of shape – to wonderful effect.

1. Mahler. I think his 5th, 8th and 9th Symphonies are pretty certain for inclusion – they are pretty popular works that made the Hottest 100 Symphonies. Mahler 5 will go near the top, I suspect, because of the Adagietto, which is breathtaking –

I don’t think his 6th or 7th will appear, probably because the 6th is a grumpy old thing (I once characterised it as the work Keating put on after a particularly bad day, ready to write one of ranty speeches) and the 7th, which is just plain weird. Which is why it’s my favourite Mahler.

2. Rachmaninov. I think his second symphony might appear, again because of the slow movement, which is one of the most sensual pieces of music going around. Never fails to move me in various ways…

3. Elgar and Vaughan Williams. For reasons best known to my childhood, I can’t separate these two, even though they wrote at different times. Elgar’s Second Symphony may make the list, by dint of earlier times when Australians listened to British classical music a lot.  Listening to it is a bit like walking through treacle for me.

I do hope, though, that some Vaughan Williams makes it – like his Sinfonia Antartica or A London Symphony, which was the first work I saw the Sydney Symphony perform inside the Opera House. I still think it’s wonderfully evocative of a London I have never visited but seen in films and on TV.

4. Shostakovich. Being my favourite composer of all time, I hope a lot of Shostakovich makes it. But I think the symphonies that will make it are Numbers 5, 10 and possibly 8 and 7 – even though 7 – the “Leningrad” is a bit rubbish, partially because I think it was intended to be.  Here are some interesting performances – the conductor of the premiere performance, Mravinsky conducting the deliberately slow, methodical pace that Shostakovich wanted vs  Leonard Bernstein, the eternal showman (listen from the 8 minute mark of the Bernstein for the comparison)

And his 10th is a cracker – this movement is said to be a musical representation of Stalin’s activities. But it’s also good for those days when the world really has picked you up and dumped you somewhere else and you have no idea how it happened.

And there’s the 8th, which is a pretty good representation of both war and the relentless passage of Stalin. But also, I find, good music to get me to wake up in the morning, ready for getting in the machine that moves me along into Sydney’s absurd traffic. In this version, look at the conductor’s cheeks. They are great.

Enough of Shostakovich. But I will conclude by saying that you really don’t need to know much of the Shostakovich “story” or “secret agendas” to enjoy his work. For me, they show a brittle, sardonic response to what was a frenetic, anxiety filled century – and not just in the Soviet Union.

5. Prokofiev. I suspect his 5th Symphony might make it (in addition to Romeo and Juliet and the 3rd Piano Concerto), but I don’t see it pop up as much on programs or the radio as those of Shostakovich. That’s probably because there isn’t as clear a “secret agenda” being played out. But it’s a still one of the best symphonies of the century – the rhythms are fantastic and I like his orchestration.

6. Messiaen. I don’t really know what music of Messiaen will make it – probably the Quartet for the End of Time, composed in a Nazi prison camp. But I also think his fantasmagoria, the Turangalila Symphonie, complete with that electronic marvel, the ondes martinot (an instrument used by Radiohead at one stage), should be there.

7. Gorecki. His Symphony No. 3, the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” made the popular music charts in the 1990s, even copping a mention in my barely read history thesis.  Its popularity of the time was put down to the way it encompassed a lot of sadness around and I think it still holds that position with people – this is why I think it will feature highly on the list.

8. Sibelius and Nielsen. I completely forgot the Scandinavian duo yesterday, despite my admiration for a number of their works. I definitely think Sibelius will appear – with his Violin Concerto a near certainty. I also suspect his Symphony No. 5 will appear.

I also think Carl Nielsen might appear – with the 4th Symphony, The “Inextinguishable” being the favourite – perhaps if for no other reason than it has a name.

9. Martinu. I mentioned Martinu yesterday – but I do wonder if anything of his will appear. You don’t hear his music that much on the radio or in concert halls – I have only ever heard his Oboe Concerto live.  But I rate him as one of the century’s best, with his mix of insanely busy music with optimism and despair. A true original.  Here is his Sixth – music to match a crazy old Saturday night in Sydney.

10. Carl Vine. Australian composers haven’t gone that much into symphonies – they seem to like the 15 minute work. This could be put down partly to the fact that John Hopkins, the  Head of Music at the ABC, commissioned a lot of orchestral works from Australian composers in the 1960s and 1970s – and Hopkins told the composers that audience attention spans weren’t much longer than 15 minutes.  Even Carl Vine’s symphonies aren’t long – running at or a bit longer than 15 minutes. And I haven’t a single youtube link of one of his works being played.  But he might make it.

There’s 10. I have missed other symphonies, no doubt – and I’ll probably be wrong. But the century did create a lot of them.

In a footnote, I mentioned to my partner that I’d composed a blog about the Hottest 100 and she mentioned Rhapsody in Blue. And I’d completely forgotten about it. It will probably hit the Top 10 and I had blanked it. Some out there would probably like to blank it permanently, but I like it.


Classical Music Cultural Comment

The ABC Classic FM Hottest 100 20th Century Edition

For those of you who love their music “classical”, this coming week doesn’t get any hotter. It’s time for the big countdown for the Hottest 100 works composed in the 20th Century. As in the JJJ Hottest 100 Of All Time, there won’t be a massive representation of Australian works or works composed by women. Here, though, is my prediction of what the of works will probably appear in that list – based on some idea of the voting audience (who are somewhat older than the crowd who vote for the JJJ Hottest 100).

Lots of Rachmaninov. Did I say lots? I meant Long Blocks of Non-Stop Rach. His 2nd, 3rd and 4th Piano Concertos, Paganini Variations, 2nd and 3rd Symphonies, Symphonic Dances, The Bells and various other works were composed in the 20th Century. All have their supporters – and detractors. To some out there, Rach is to 20th Century classical music as Bryan Adams is to rock – over emotional gloop. Not me, however. I personally love the Symphonic Dances.

Mahler will appear – with his 5th to 9th Symphonies all appearing in the first decade. As with Richard Strauss, whose self indulgent musical fondue (arrestingly so) falls largely in the 20th Century. I expect his glorious Four Last Songs to appear near the top. (This one usually makes me tear up)

Also near the top will be Gustav Holst’s The Planets – one 20th century work that usually packs in the punters at symphony concerts. You know The Planets – its Jupiter movement features that rugby song.

I also think Stravinsky will appear – though The Firebird will probably appear higher than his more influential and controversial Rite of Spring, simply because it is flashier and liked more. First the Firebird, then Rite.

I also think we will see some Vaughan Williams and definitely Elgar – even though the Enigma Variations were composed in 1899.  His Cello Concerto is a dead cert, thanks largely to the legend that is connected to Jacqueline du Pre’s performances.

In terms of the French, I also believe we will see Messiaen, Debussy, possibly Poulenc and Ravel. That means, definitely this. (Warning – contains Rieu)

From Eastern Europe I would also expect Bartok, and Gorecki – his insanely successful 3rd Symphony – Arvo Part and possibly Martinu and Lutoslawski.  I adore Martinu – infectious rhythms.

And then there is the Soviet Union. This is the century that produced Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian as well as Gubaidulina – though I don’t expect the latter to appear, despite pieces like her Offertorium, which are awesome. (Warning – contains a good violinist)

From the USA, I am expecting some Copland, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, possibly some of the minimalism from Adams and Reich. Ah, Reich. (Put this on while you clean the house – it’s awesome cleaning up music)

Lastly, I do expect Australian works by Peter Sculthorpe, Carl Vine, Ross Edwards, possibly Richard Mills. But not at the top. That would be wonderful, of course – especially if this cracker from Ross Edwards – Dawn Mantras – made it.

And that is what I’m predicting. We shall see. And not a single piece by Jeff Buckley in sight.




Cultural Comment

Kyle Sandilands – A Troll of Australia’s Making

We have heard and read plenty about Kyle Sandilands in the past couple of days, starting with his “Night with the Stars” calamity on Channel 7 (more commented upon than seen), through comments on his radio show about reporting about that program. His petty, misogynistic targetting of the reporter’s personal appearance, however, should hardly be a surprise to anyone who can recall other examples of similar attacks and Kyle’s personal style. He is employed as a “provocative” host who “says what he thinks” and paid handsomely for that on multiple platforms.

Kyle Sandilands is a very popular figure amongst teenagers and young adults simply because he acts in a way that many would want to be allowed to act. The naughty school child who gets away with stuff. I remember when the the Magda Szubanski “Concentration Camp” stuff hit the ariwaves, I asked students what they thought of Sandilands. First, most hadn’t heard of the Holocaust and second, they liked his ability to say things they would like to say. These children live vicariously through him and what he says. This explains his ubiquity on the television, radio and newspapers.

The truth about Sandilands – and one to which he would have readily admitted to himself in the past, I’m guessing – is that Sandilands has no reason to be considered knowledgeable about anything, certainly not enough to be a judge on a musical talent program. It was a mystery what he brought to Australian Idol, for example, other than a reputation for saying “what others are thinking” – according to Kyle at least. Therefore, there should have been questions somewhere along the line about why he had a job in the media at all, considering his lack of knowledge and skill in nothing else other than reacting like an adolescent.

This is why I contend that the problem lays not necessarily with Sandilands, it lays with the media organisations that employ him and report on his activities. It is irresponsible for any media outlet to employ someone who does not act in an adult, mature fashion, instead acting without consideration toward societal expectations and responsibilities. He should not be working for any of them – that he still does indicates those organisations’ lack of care towards various groupings in society – especially women. They seem to be just focused on the revenue he rakes in for them with his trolling for reaction. Any media organisation that gives him the oxygen that he is apparently “thieving” should not be giving him more oxygen but instead just not reporting on him at all. News Ltd, especially, have dedicated a lot of space in their media to stoking his ego, through positive and negative reporting. Nor should they be, like David Penberthy has in the Punch, using Sandilands style language to describe him – that is just playing to his subterranean ethical standard. The rest of the Penberthy piece was spot on about Sandilands and his misogynistic history – but it’s hardly news to anyone.

The solution is simple – don’t employ him, don’t report on him. That will have far more impact than calling him a piece of misogynistic shit. Yes, we know he is, but he likes the publicity. And that is the problem.


Tony Abbott is Groucho Marx

A short post today, due mostly to the insane work life I lead at the moment. It seems the minority government is still working very well, with the independents and Greens forcing the Government to do things that help the community, rather than squibbing on things due to intense pressure from expensively supported lobbyists in Canberra and on certain media outlets.

After seeing a tweet from @LukeWhito sent to Minister for Things Albo, it struck me that this video sums up Tony Abbott’s tactics as Opposition Leader like nothing else. Right down to the “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It”, the beard pulling of important people (just think of his “farting in church” performance when Obama was in town) and the repetition of “I Always Get My Man”. In Abbott’s case, of course, it’s a woman he is “trying to get”.

Only thing is though, Abbott isn’t funny like Groucho.  He takes himself much too seriously – and so does our media.

Cultural Comment Sport

Vale Peter Roebuck – Cricket Will Miss You

Cricket produces one of a kind eccentrics that no other sport provides. Think of Brent “Billy” Bowden, the NZ umpire, Colin “Funky” Miller, Greg Matthews, even Stuart MacGill. People who are thinkers. People who don’t addle their brain with spending much too much times in gymnasiums with sport scientists, “shaping” their bodies into perfect specimens. Instead, some have time to read and to think.

Peter Roebuck was that kind of figure. As a cricketer, as a man and as a commentator. I only knew him as a sound on my radio and as words on a page – words that I found myself in either furious agreement or disagreement. Or just aghast at the latest breathtakingly bad simile or metaphor. As a broadcaster, though, I loved his contrarian and outsider status, saying things about the game that needed to be said. He was a frequent and outspoken critic of Ricky Ponting’s woeful captaincy of Australia long before it became a chorus.

Cricket has also produced the best sport journalism any sport has to offer. This is because it really is a game that reveals character and thinking, rather than just brute force and rote learnt strategy. Back in the day I was a history student at university, I really wanted to look at cricket writing back in Neville Cardus’ day, right through to Tiger Bill O’Reilly’s gruff and blunt work in the 80s. I didn’t have the guts to do that – but I think there should be a look at the continuum of cricket writing, from Cardus to Roebuck, who with Mike Coward and Gideon Haigh, are (now were, in the case of Roebuck) this generation’s finest cricket writers in Australia.

Roebuck, however, unlike Coward and Haigh, was able to create sensations and intense conversation about his views, which is a good thing for all of those who love cricket and the issues it raises. And that is why the cricket world needed him. I remember having many conversations about Roebuck with the online friend who is now my partner. In her words, Roebuck represented, in terms of cricket, the “anti-bogan” view of cricket – as in, he posited an intellectual, sensitive attitude that questioned the harsh arrogance that has gripped elements of the Australian cricket community in the past decade.

We know that Roebuck stood aside from the usual view of what a cricket community member should do and spent a deal of his time helping Southern African cricketers and this side of his life will, I suspect, be a part of intense scrutiny in the coming weeks. His altruism and genuinely giving nature in that work may well get swamped by innuendo and the like, consider the nature of our media and its grubbier operatives. That is not what I will remember Peter Roebuck for. As I listened to ABC Grandstand highlights from his career, I found it very hard not to cry uncontrollably. I can’t imagine what it would be like for people whose lives he enriched through his friendship. I will remember him as one of our greatest commentators and thinkers about the game of cricket. Vale Peter Roebuck. Apart from anything else, you made straw hat wearing fashionable.

Classical Music Cultural Comment

Richard Gill and Mrs Carey – Preserving “Classical” Music in Aspic

People may know me as a cage rattler on topics like politics, boganity and all that’s in-between. But, close to my heart is classical music. When I was a younger, more sheltered petal brought up in a classical-only household, I thought the world was mad for preferring pop music to classical. I’d emerge from a world of Schubert, Wolf, Mozart and Beethoven to face Wham, A Ha and ACDC, wondering why people were just plain silly and childish.  Yes, I really was like that – because my mother was. To her, there was only the classics and people needed to be trained to appreciate it. To be otherwise showed a lack of class.

I see a similar attitude expressed by the Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony’s Education Program and regular guest on Spicks and Specks – and now Q and A. That classical music must be properly taught by proper teachers. Proper. As if teachers in a modern music classroom are doing Improper Teaching.  It’s an attitude Gill also expressed in a recent TED talk, comprehensively analysed and assessed by another, less well known music educator, Elissa Milne.  In it, he presents the view I had as a 20 year old obsessively reading Gramophone magazines and attending SSO concerts featuring few, if any young people in the audience. That classical music is the greatest and needs to be taught for its own sake. It’s an attitude similarly expressed by English teachers who think students should be dragged kicking and screaming to love Shakespeare, Bronte, Austen and Dickens. Art for its own sake.

As any teacher out there in the field will tell you, this is an unrealistic and unachievable goal. In a classroom, a teacher can keep control and shape a lesson to have students pay attention to things like music and why people appreciate it. You can even have a whole bunch of them sing in unison if you ask them nicely. However, when they leave your classroom or hall, it’s their choice what they do with it. And telling them didactically that This Is Important Stuff will fall away from their minds as soon as they leave the room.

What Gill is essentially promoting is a view of “Classical” music that wants society to preserve in aspic. Aspiconservatives. That it is stuff from the past that Enriches us and Must Be Studied. It is a similar view that is promoted in the Advertising Showreel for MLC Sydney’s Music Department, Mrs. Carey’s Concert. That was a film that screamed “must see” for “anyone who loves classical music”. It has almost become sacrilege to criticise it amongst the loyal fans. What I saw, though, was all that’s wrong with the way classical music is represented in Australia. As an elitist activity for the rich, or, something to be Endured. Not every school in Australia can afford the Sydney Opera House for a concert – not even every elite private school.  While the music was very well performed, it just showed what a focus towards a hyped and pressurised event can do. It also showed how much the school would do to make itself look good to the community, by pressuring disengaged students to sing Verdi in a massed choir.

I loathed the intent of the film and what it was doing for classical music. It was saying that classical music education is different from every other sort of teaching and is somehow more “special” – instead being an integral part of a wider education. We didn’t see how the preparation for the concert had an impact on everything else students did in MLC – that wasn’t seen as important. What was important, though, was the PR value.

The Gill / Mrs Carey “exceptionalist” view of music education also distorts what “classical music” actually is. It was music that was popular in its day. Verdi’s operas are basically a bunch of show tunes knitted together by a terrible story and lots of showy orchestral tricks. A few steps higher than Lloyd Webber in the sophistication of construction, for sure – but only a few. To do it in Italian is absurd in Australia, because it takes it out of its original context and makes it into music in a aspic. Making modern students perform bits from his works without them knowing its meaning is pointless and will make them resent it.

The fact is, “classical” music does live on, in a new context. The author’s intention doesn’t matter anymore – instead, people listen to three minute classics in new compilations, or the Swoon on ABC Classical FM, or in TV ads.  It is also accessible via the internet in any number of forms, ready to be accessed by people who hear parts of it played somewhere, somehow. But that’s the point. Ready to be accessed – and made part of a new context. Beethoven won’t care that his music is the staple of advertisements, Schubert advertising cars, Mozart a soap ad, Rachmaninov the music for bedroom activities.  Beethoven just wanted an audience, as well as girl to drink and play music with. Mozart had the girls, but would love the way we do music these days. Rude and raunchy.  Schubert just wanted a girl. Rachmaninov is on record as preferring the jazz version of his famous C# Minor Prelude to his original.  They didn’t see the need to be “appreciated” by everyone at all, so why should we be so precious about it? Music is there to inspire us when we are ready and have the need to be inspired.  It shouldn’t be behind the glass cage, separated from society, to be revered. And when I mean “bedroom activities”, I mean reading whilst playing the Rach 3 CD people bought after seeing Shine. Some people. I don’t know…