Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Parody Parade

This Sunday, my daughter's youth orchestra will be playing a big program which begins with Ravel's La valse. I've been thinking about my unusual affection for that piece, an orchestral showstopper which I love best as played by....pianist Glenn Gould. This preference is unusual both because this work is known for Ravel's brilliant, colorful orchestration and because Gould is decidedly not known for playing French or Impressionistic music in general. It strikes me that my attraction to his particular recording reveals several layers of distance from the origins of this music - and I like investigating such layers. 

Let's back up a little and note that pretty much ALL music gets part of its communicative and imaginative power by building on music that already exists. This is obvious enough, but ignored a lot as well. No waltz is an island, one might say.

So it is that one can trace many subterranean layers beneath Gould's version of Ravel's piano transcription of Ravel's own work originally conceived as ballet (the rejection of which almost led to a duel between Ravel and Diaghilev!*). I suppose one could go back to the earliest example of humans dancing, follow that trail to the evolution of formal dances like the waltz, then observe the way in which composers like Chopin and Strauss turned waltzes into concert pieces which inspired Ravel to write a nostalgic evocation of nineteenth-century ballroom waltzing. Ravel's work is thus a parody* of an older style, but the way in which Ravel and Gould re-imagine the colorful orchestral timbres in black-and-white piano context has elements of parody as well, even if not intended to be humorous. (Worth noting that, going back to the Renaissance, a parody just meant basing a work, like a mass, on a pre-existing work; doesn't have to be funny.)

I have always loved piano transcriptions, but will admit there's something a bit silly about having one piano re-create La valse. (There was a time when Ravel's two-piano version was the acknowledged best option, but the solo version seems to be becoming more popular as a vehicle for transcendent technique.) What I love about Gould's approach is that he seems to relish that absurdity. Rather than try to sound like a smoothly blended orchestra, Gould is happy for certain details to receive a new and unexpected spotlighting. This is most obvious at the very beginning where - speaking of subterranean! - Ravel has all sorts of primordial goings on submerged in the bass. (By the way, I only just noticed that the two pitches Ravel alternates, E and F, are the same two featured at the beginning of some famous below-the-surface music by John Williams.)

Whereas Ravel's opening is all muted, pianissimo rumblings, Gould sets his own tone right away.

It's comically different from Ravel's original, and the funny thing is that the piano can do this kind of blurry/submerged thing really well as demonstrated by plenty of other pianists. Gould, ever the iconoclast, seems to be clearing the air right from the outset with a mezzo-forte-plus Bartók sound. THIS IS A PIANO, NOT AN ORCHESTRA! So, although Gould's version does not fit the literal definition of a parody, it has that feeling, and yet I find it thrilling and colorful in its own way. Because it's all played by two hands (assuming Gould didn't do too much cheating in studio), it's more exhilarating listening for me than the almost-too-much orchestral original (though I'm very much looking forward to hearing the orchestra play it live in the great Symphony Hall).

The other thing that interests me here is that I'm not a big fan of the types of waltzes (Strauss, etc.) that Ravel is parodying, but I DO like his parody of them. I've found that dynamic at work in many contexts. For example, I love Fritz Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro, which is an early 20th century parody of early 18th century style, and I find the Kreisler more compelling than a lot of music from the early 18th century. Kreisler here trades on a lot of the expressive devices of Baroque style while adding in a Romantic virtuoso mindset. The Vitali Chaconne is a similar sort of piece - probably not by Vitali! - though I find it a bit more tiresome than Kreisler's work. I could also happily go the rest of my days without ever again hearing Grieg's From Holberg's Time (in piano or orchestra dress), so I'm not always an easy mark for cross-century parody.

Another more modernist parody I enjoy is Stravinsky's Pulcinella, supposedly based on music by Pergolesi. Worth noting that just as Stravinsky adds dimension to these old tunes, their inspiration brings out something new in his own voice. I'm especially fond of the violin/piano Suite italienne drawn from this ballet, so again it's a transcription of a parody that hits the sweet spot. Maybe I am predictable?

My attitude about this is probably not the most mainstream, but my fascination with mashups and other distortions suggests how much I'm intrigued by off-center re-imaginings, whether of specific works (La valse) or general styles (Baroque). In this way, parodies (and mashups) are a kind of conversation. They are not just music - they are about music. (Which, again, is true of all music to some degree, but it's true in a special way with a parody.) I also have special affection for some of the Romanticized piano parts in the notorious 24 Italian Songs and Arias book, used by countless voice students, and I've always been disappointed by efforts to provide these 17th and 18th century songs with more authentic accompaniments. The piano-vocal versions that have come down to us are parodies of a sort (many by Parisotti), but none the weaker for that as they take advantage of sonorities natural to the piano. As with the works I've mentioned by Kreisler and Stravinsky, music from the past is viewed through the prism of intervening centuries, and that kind of mixing can be really rich and satisfying because there are so many layers.

Recently, I watched a video called "How Allegri's Miserere should really sound." You can watch the whole thing for yourself, but the basics are as follows: 1) Allegri's original work from the early 1600's is already meant as an homage to an older style, so it began life as a parody. 2) Various performance traditions evolved over centuries as the work acquired legendary status connected to its use in the Sistine Chapel and Mozart's supposed copying down of the work from memory. 3) Somewhere along the way, a part was mis-copied a fourth too high in a way that leads to a very memorable high C which, in my experience, is THE most famous thing about this music, but it's the creation of a much later nineteenth century point-of-view. When I hear mention of this piece, I immediately hear the part you may hear here (at 12:10). This is an unintentional parody, but though the video seems to want to say, "let's go back to Allegri's original vision," my temptation is to say that the distorted tradition is more interesting. (Of course, this kind of distortion happens in all sorts of contexts, and I'm not saying it's always a good thing.)

Popping over to another genre, I've never really felt any attachment to 60's folk music, but I simply adore just about all the music written for A Mighty Wind, which is just one affectionate parody after another. In that case it is partly the humorous aspect, but the creators and performers of those songs achieved something magical that transcends parody, and I'm forced to give some credit to a musical tradition which otherwise doesn't interest me. So the power of parody means there might be hope for...who knows what? In the meantime, my apologies for the parody in the footnote below.

* Perhaps worth mentioning as well that I love Ravel's dance even though I'm not such a big fan of dancing. Serge Diaghilev also seemed to agree that this dance music is better for listening than dancing, which I guess led to his almost dueling with Ravel. Unfortunately, I then found it impossible not to imagine this Diaghologue:

You should be able to click on it to enlarge, if you dare. For comparison, the original is here.

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