Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ave Maria/Ellens dritter Gesang by Franz Schubert

Ave Maria/Ellens dritter Gesang
 from Songs from Sir Walter Scott
by Franz Schubert
published 1825

 Well now this is what I'm talking about- a hit song written by a composer in 1825 ABOUT books written by a hit Author.  That is what they call "synergy" in the world of big business.

  Franz Schubert was one of the first musicians to attempt to earn a living as a composer with no skills as a performer of music.  Writing music in the early 19th century, "the position of a composer who had no marked abilities as instrumentalist, conductor or administrator was far less profitable... from any wordly point of view, no career was ever so unsuccessful as Schubert's."  (1)

  Working initially as a school teacher, Franz Schubert wrote for opera as early 1818- an effort which lay unproduced for a year and a half.  He wrote a second opera in 1822, which was commissioned but not produced.  In 1823, he wrote a one act opera that ran into problems with government censors.

Franz Schubert: FAILURE

    Franz Schubert only gave one public performance in his entire career, on March 21st, 1828.  Schubert sold his music and songs to publishers, but he hardly received any money.  His works were, "addressed to the amateur market, and his supply of songs seems to have outstripped the publishers' capacity for issuing them."

    Again though, Franz Schubert was crucial in making an explicit link between music and literature, "By the time that Schubert died, not only had this new sensitivity created the Lied but Berlioz had embarked on the early concert overtures in which his musical impulses were drawn into focus by works of literature- Waverley, King Lear and Rob Roy... The new alliance between literature and music was to develop in the 1840s into the symphonic poems in which Liszt adapted the techniques of symphonic development to as close a parallel as can be achieved to narrative style in order to communicate his sense of the emotion significance of literature." (2)

   In Music and Society Since 1815, during a passage about the career of Franz Schubert,  Henry Raynor observes,
           "To declare any essential connection between the composer's new awareness of literature as a musical stimulus and the search for new audiences forced upon him by social and political conditions, would be to state more than we can ever have sufficient information to know.  But it may well be that subconsciously- for no composer of programme (sic) music has suggested that his approach to literature was a deliberate attempt to create a community of feeling with an audience which might otherwise find it difficult to come to terms with what he had to communicate- the romantic composer realized that the shared experience of literature was a means of approach to listeners otherwise hard to reach."

 This is a profound obersvation on the part of Raynor, and I think the negative phrasing of the thought weakness the strength of the observation.  Isn't it more accurate to surmise that, yes, Franz Schubert was consciouly trying to creat an Audience when he reference the work of Sir Walter Scott in 1825.

 Think about it- this is a guy- in Austria- in the early 19th century- who is basically broke- and has essentially zero Audience for his work.  What are the chances he "unconsciously" works in a Sir Walter Scott reference in 1825.  Rob Roy was published in 1817 and Sir Walter Scott and his followers were entering a twenty year period of literary dominance.


(1) Raynor, Henry Music and Society Since 1815,  published by Schokcen Books 1972, 17.
(2) Id at 20

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Für Elise by Ludwig van Beethoven

Für Elise (Bagatelle No. 25 in A Minor)
by Ludwig van Beethoven
composed in 1810
published in 1867

 Like yesterday's post on Eine Kleine Nightmusik,   Für Elise gained popularity only after being discovered and published fifty years after the death of the Composer.  In 1867, Ludwig van Beethoven had already established his canonical status in the realm of Music.  Fur Elise has it almost two to one over Moonlight Sonata on Last FM in terms of weekly plays.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville

Herman Melville

Moby Dick
by Herman Melville
published 1851

  Herman Melville is the second major Author on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list to obtain his canonical status from a Revival.   The first example of the Revival phenomenon is the well-documented revival of Jane Austen in late 19th century.  Although published in 1851, Herman Melville was ignored for decades after his death except by a small circle of writers and critics in New York City who "kept the flame arrive."

 The conventional explanation for the revival of Herman Melville is that he was "before his time" in using Modernist literary techniques.   Fair enough.  It is true that successors didn't start truly arguing for the enduring value of Moby Dick until 1917.

Moby Dick the White Whales

  Much of the "blame" for the failure upon initial publications came from the harsh response that London based critics gave to Moby Dick.  The story goes that the less-sophisticated American critics followed their lead.   That is a weak explanation for why Moby Dick failed.

 The best way to illustrate this is by looking at the reception by American critics of books Charles Dickens published in the 1840s. The American critics expressed negative opinions of works like The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby that were "America specific" and independent of those expressed by English critics.

 I would argue that the key to understanding the initial commercial failure of Moby Dick by Herman Melville is held by looking at Herman Melville's popularity BEFORE Moby Dick was published.

 Specifically, he had popularity, and an Audience, based on Audience familiarity with his travel narratives. I think what went wrong when Moby Dick was published was specifically that he confused his Audience.  That Audience included both the folks who actually bought and read his earlier books, and liked them, as well as critics who were only interested in Moby Dick because it was by someone who had sold books in the past and had an existing Audience.

 That existing Audience- wasn't dissuaded from critics from not liking Moby Dick- they themselves did not like Moby Dick because it was so out there.  If the people who bought and read 500+ Novels in the mid 19th century- and that would have been everyone who read Novels, period- had liked Moby Dick, the critics would have come around.  If Moby Dick had been serialized, and the Audience for printed matters had glommed on to Moby Dick for whatever reason, the critics would have come around.

 A "blame the critics" approach to describing the failed initial reception of Moby Dick is wrong, one might as well blame the Audience for existing.

  It is also worth comparing the eventual popularity of Herman Melville and Moby Dick to Charles Dickens and his crowning achievement,  David Copperfield.  They were published almost within a year of one another in London, so it's a good comparison.  If you look at a Google Ngram comparing the frequency of mention of the two Authors names between 1840 and 2000,  Charles Dickens "takes off" in the mid 1860s and Herman Melville is flat well into the 20th century.  Since the 1960s both Authors have been flat, with Charles Dickens reasonably more popular then Herman Melville, but with both in the same league.

 If you add Jane Austen to the mix (another "revived" Author) you can see that she has blown both men out of the water in the late 20th century.   In the Dickens/Melville/Austen graph you can also see the impact of the earlier Austen revival during a time when Melville was essentially dormant.

 You can also add the names of the works: David Copperfield & Moby Dick, to the Ngram that contains the names of the Authors, Herman Melville and Charles Dickens.  This Ngram shows that Moby Dick the work is almost more popular or as popular as the Author, whereas David Copperfield is only a fraction of the popularity of Charles Dickens.

  I think the irony of the initial failure/eventual success of Moby Dick by Herman Melville is that it has literally inspired a hundred years of writers to write books people don't want to read.  Think about it, think about the later impact of literary modernism on the Novel and the shape that the Novel takes as an Art form during the 20th century.  Moby Dick has inspired a century of terrible writers to actually be terrible on the theory that after they are dead some egg head will finally "get" their brilliance.  Personally, I'd rather throw in with Charles Dickens then Herman Melville.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
(Serenade No. 13 for strings in G Major)
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
composed in 1787

   Composed four years-ish after Rondo alla Turca, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is arguably the more popular song.  On Last FM, the former had 1034 plays last week and the later had 998- pretty close tally.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

     I would bet that almost half the people on the planet would recognize the opening refrain from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, even if they have no idea it's Mozart.  The composition date deserves a major caveat, because Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was not published until 1827- long after his death.  According to Wikipedia- for once actually citing an actual source- Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is THE most popular of all Mozart's works.

 Because of the delay between composition and publication, the initial reception of the work didn't happen until the 19th century.  If you look at a Google Ngram comparing the popularity/frequency of the title of this song with the popularity/frequency of Mozart himself, you see Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was basically at zero until the 1920s, and saw a peak of interest between 1940 and 1960.  This becomes even clearer if you shorten the time frame to exclude everything after 1920.  The take off of the song appears to go hand in hand with the take off of the Artist- which seems to be related to the invention of recorded media.

 I would hypothesize that Mozart got a huge boost in the early 20th century from the introduction and adoption of Record players, allowing a larger Audience to hear his "hits."

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