Advent 3: On being too ‘musical’

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An extract from the 2nd Movt. of Saint-Saëns’ 4th piano concerto Op. 44

In the summer of 2000, Christopher Hampson (a.k.a. Chris in this blog elsewhere) created a five-minute graduation-day piece for the final year students at the RAD called Finale, for which he assembled a reconstituted miniature of  Saint-Saëns’ 4th piano concerto (1875).

Given the brief, some cuts would be inevitable, most of which he’d decided on in advance. He’s a quick and resourceful choreographer, who finds creative solutions for everything. But in one passage of the 2nd movement of the concerto, he kept frowning and shaking his head like someone trying to unravel a lawnmower flex caught in a bush.

Eventually he looked over to me and said “I just wish he wouldn’t be so….musical“, saying the word ‘musical’ with a rather disparaging grimace, and then rather apologetically,  ‘Do you know what I mean?’

Oh yes, I did, but I hadn’t until he’d said it. In an instant I realised what had annoyed me about so many other passages in the same vein.  It made me laugh, and still does when I think about it, and it’s given me the freedom to dislike other similar music with impunity. As I’ve said before, I like choreographers because they aren’t afraid of music.

The best laughter is a laughter of recognition, and it was years later that I understood what it was that had made me laugh, when I read Raymond Monelle’s discussion of a similar passage from Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony (1893) in his book The Sense of Music

The development section of this movement, after its sudden irruption from lassitude, is a lifeless and routine fugato […] The marking feroce cannot disguise the fact that, as usual in Romantic music, this is an intervention of authorial will, not a shift of temporality but a response to the symphonic command, a sign of symphonism (except that such signs, being surrenders to routine, are really signs of nothing).

From Raymond Monelle, The Sense of Music, p. 144 (Princeton University Press, 2000)

And there you have two things on a plate, firstly a hypothesis for why the passage from the Saint-Saëns’ concerto might seem too ‘musical’, and why  ‘musical’ is such a good word for it – it’s a ‘surrender to routine’, the need to sound as if you’re making ‘music’ rather than just getting on with it. And secondly, it’s a perfect example of what I mean by choreographers being able to sum up and intuit such complex things in a word.

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