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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Thursday April 10 2008

They’ve been playing the Vaughan Williams symphonies on Radio 3, each afternoon this week.  No 2, one of my favourites, was on Tuesday, and I was once again struck by how there were passages in it that would not have sounded out of place if they had been plucked out of this “London” Symphony and placed in the midst of Miklos Rosza’s music for the Jesus Christ scenes in Ben Hur.  I think I wrote on my old Culture Blog about how artificial are the associations between particular orchestral sounds and particular nationalities, using this same orchestral coincidence to illustrate the point.  The typical Vaughan Williams Tallis-drenched string sound has become attached to the English countryside, but this association is merely the product of certain pictures constantly being shown, especially on television, alongside certain sounds.  Vaughan Williams actually took orchestration lessons from Ravel, I recall learning recently.  So, if a Frenchman had written those symphonies, would they now be regarded as typically French.  Yes they would.  Was Vaughan Williams Jewish?  No.  Had he been, would his music (with not a note changed) have been described, then and ever since, as sounding decidedly Jewish?  Yes.  No question.  Are they now described as sounding Jewish?  Not that I’ve ever heard.
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Now I am listening to a Naxos CD of two symphonies (2 and 5) by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924).  This is very good music, definitely two notches above average, which isn’t always true with more obscure stuff.  Sometimes, there’s a good reason it’s obscure.  Anyway, while listening to this very good CD, I heard another mismatch between the actual nationality of the composer (Irish/British – born in Dublin – career in England), and what his nationality sounded like while I was listening.  The last movement was apparently inspired by a Milton poem involving ancient Greece.  Yet if I had had to guess who wrote it, blind, I would have guessed: Glazunov.  The last movement sounded particularly “Russian”.  There was something about the way the brass instruments were combined with the strings, and something about the rhythm.

The inverted commas being there because all I mean by “Russian” is that it sounded like the sort of stuff that Russian composers, most particularly Glazunov, just happened to be composing at the time.  We now think of that kind of sound as typically Russian.  Again, that is merely how it turned out.  That sound could have ended up being regarded as sounding typically somewhere quite different.

There’s no great mystery about why Stanford might sometimes sound like Glazunov.  Both Stanford and the Russian composers who were his contemporaries were steeped in the same Germanic orchestral sounds and traditions, as this guy explains very well.  I heard Glazunov.  He heard Brahms.  As did I, before I started hearing Glazunov instead.

Of all the arts, music is the one that is least dependent upon the particular circumstances in which it is created, the most abstract.  Painting tends – often if not always - to be painting of the people and places it was painted in.  Literature and poetry, ditto.  But music has a life of its own.  What is music, especially purely instrumental music, about?  Anything, and nothing.  What connection do particular sounds have with particular people and places and words, only the connections that creators choose to create.

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