Saturday, January 2, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/1/16 - New Year's in Vienna

Something new I'm going to try this year... Providing explanations for the musical clips I post to facebook... 

Every January 1st, a billion people apparently tune in to watch the Vienna Philharmonic perform Strauss Waltzes. I'm sure it's a billion people in the same way that a billion people watch the Super Bowl. I don't know how many actually watch, but I do know that for a music lover, it's the most comforting ritual in the world. Never mind the stupid music videos that go along with it. You don't have to watch them. What matters is the music. To not have Strauss Waltzes on January 1st is as unthinkable as Christmas without carols.
Italy has art, England has poetry, Russia has the novel, America has movies, France has food, Spain has dance. Every major country seems to have some artform at which they're so much greater than everybody else that it seems to provide a window into its soul. In that sense, the German speaking lands have music, and nowhere moreso than in Austria. Imperial Vienna in the waning days of the Holy Roman Empire was very nearly the most polyglot place in world history. Music was the only form of communication that could have brought so many different cultures together.
In its lightest form, the dance music of Imperial Vienna is one of the most direct ancestors to all the various genres contemporary popular music to which everyone reading this listens to every day of their lives. It has all the same strengths and weaknesses as its later descendants - on the one hand possessing all the same accessibility, energy, eroticism; on the other, the same formulaic layouts and lack of room for individuality. Eventually, all these popular tunes sound the same to your ear... And since the distributor has a much more complex job in popular music than the musician, the distributors made most of the money then as now. Nevertheless, many things in music that we think of as contemporary developments: sampling, remixes, were happening all the time in the popular dance halls of 19th century Vienna.

The great orchestras sound unmistakably like no other, and for almost all of its 173 years Vienna Philharmonic has been THE orchestra. Positions in its ranks are often passed through families from father to son to grandson (and we can only hope one day soon, to great-granddaughter). It's the home band from the city whose streets Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert walked nearly every day of their adult lives. It's the band on which Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, and Dvorak often tried out their compositions (often to great derision). Hearing the Vienna Philharmonic live in their home music: Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, the Strauss family, is like going to the Rijksmuseum or the Uffizi Gallery and seeing a Michelangelo or a Rembrandt in the flesh. You have some idea of how overwhelming it is, but nothing can prepare you for what it's like to have direct contact.
Now that Claudio Abbado's dead, Mariss Jansons is probably most people's choice for the greatest living conductor. Before he became 'too good for us', he would occasionally come to Baltimore, and some of the earliest memories I have of realizing just how extraordinary music can be was from listening to him conduct our hometown band. In more recent years when he became a superstar, I've sometimes found his concerts a little bland, but there's no trace of blandness here. He's now in his early seventies, and an absolute master. He seems to be instructing the players on the spot - painting the details onto the musical canvas.
Since this is 2 and a half hours long, here are some recs for where to skip to:
22:44 - Carl Michael Ziehrer - Weana Madln, Walzer op.388
1:13:05 - Josef Strauß - Sphärenklänge, Walzer op.235
1:28:50 - Josef Strauß - Auf Ferienreisen, Polka schnell op.133
1:42:45 - Josef Hellmesberger Vater - Ballszene
1:57:25 - Johann Strauß Sohn - Kaiser-Walzer op.437
2:17:37 - Johann Strauß Sohn - An der schonen blauen Donau, Walzer op.314
2:29:45 - Johann Strauß Vater - Radetzky-marsch op.228

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