Mozart, Wagner and David Bowie: Andrew Grant on the History of Music
“YOU ARE NOT allowed to ask who my favorite composer is. Andrew Gant pretends to be offended. “It’s like asking ‘who is your favorite kid? “”
I just asked if, in his case, the answer is Mozart. Because anyone who reads Gant’s new western music story, Five Straight Lines, can read each other and consider the way he writes about Wolfgang Amadeus to be a declaration of love. Well, isn’t it, Andrew?
“You are right. The coincidence of talent with the manner and style of his age has not been made more perfectly than this particular person with his combination of ability, background and education.
Once he starts talking about Mozart, it’s like turning on a faucet. The enthusiasm is unleashed
“And he’s just an incredibly wonderful, lovable, chimerical, childish and funny character,” Gant continues. “His letters are just amazing. They are so entertaining. I hope this book, if it does anything, will inspire people to go and read Mozart’s letters. They are so funny, but also so revealing.
“He passes very quickly details of the musical style. How he works and how other people work, which is fascinating. It is he who speaks in real time to write a tune and go and rehearse it. And then he goes on dirty jokes with his latest girlfriend or talks about somebody’s piano practice and it’s just wonderful, really alive.
A bit like Gant’s book, you might say. Five Straight Lines is perhaps an epic of Wagnerian proportions (this is the best part of 600 pages) which takes us from 40,000 BC. he jumps like a scherzo, traveling from Bach to Bowie, medieval choirs to Spice Girls and even finds time to mention the theme of the 1970s sitcom Are You Being Served?
“Well, that’s another thing I tried to do in telling this story,” Gant explains when I bring up the latter, “to try to remove artificial boundaries. The boundaries between pop and classical are much smoother than you might think. Are you Being Served? begins with the sound of an old-fashioned crate. Now, using an additional musical sound like this in a piece of music was an idea that was explored by serious composers like John Cage at the same time. All on electronic music… The Beatles, Doctor Who and Stockhausen, they were all doing the same thing at the same time. So when you start watching it, those boundaries seem to melt away. ”
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Gant, a former professional tenor and organist, conductor and composer at Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal and currently lecturer in music at St Peter’s College, Oxford University, is the best kind of devotee. Open, committed, attentive (particularly useful given its subject) and eloquent in sharing knowledge.
Five Straight Lines took five years to write (“I did other things during that time,” he points out) and is an attempt to tell the story of Western music as, he says (citing German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt), a “living whole” rather than a “dead aggregate”.
“One of the things I tried to do a little differently is to let history be history. So here you will find chapters on Beethoven and Mozart. But, also, you will find information on composers whose you’ve probably heard of it but maybe don’t like it enough as they tend to get a bit overshadowed.
“I think Antonio Salieri is a good example. He is known to be in Vienna at the same time as Mozart, which is a difficult concert for everyone. But he was an extremely influential, very generous, very helpful person who taught a wide range of people in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a very great figure.
“And, also, a very good composer. He wrote fantastic operas and very beautiful church music.
One of the highlights of the book is Gant’s eye for fun and illuminating detail. At one point we find Casanova, no less, chatting with Cardinal Richelieu on a royal hunting trip, discussing the comparative merits of the French and Italian recitatives versus the opera company the king brought. (The merits of the actresses’ legs were also assessed.)
“We make music because we have to,” writes Gant as he travels through the history of music, explaining the connections between medieval composers and their twentieth-century counterparts in their interest in mathematics and chance.
“Another advantage of trying to do the whole history of music in one book is that you can treat historical time as a continuum,” says Gant. “You can find links and themes that run through and come back and one of those themes is the story itself, the way each age looks at its past.
“The idea that there is a correct version of the story is just a myth. Each era uses its past and heritage in the way that suits it.
“When Bach was still alive, his style was beginning to be seen as old-fashioned and to be replaced by the upcoming new style represented by his own sons.
“And he would have expected that. It was the natural order of things. After his death, it is certainly wrong to say that his music has completely disappeared. It’s not correct. But it has become more of a specialist’s business.
“But then, in the 19th century, people like Mendelssohn started to resuscitate his music.”
Musical reputations come and go. Our tastes reflect the culture in which we live. Mozart now feels a much more contemporary figure, for example, than, say, Wagner, I suggest.
“My God, when I got to the chapter on Wagner, you have to take a deep breath,” admits Gant. “A genius of pretty colossal proportions, but one that comes with so much baggage and you just can’t ignore it. You have to write about anti-Semitism and German supremacy and the pretty crass way it treated a lot of people to create these monumental works of art.
“And then you have the added complication which is the use that future ages will make of his music; above all, of course, the Nazis. And to what extent is he guilty? He certainly gave them a playbook. There is no doubt about it.
Music does not float above the culture from which it comes. It emerges from within. Gant vividly writes, for example, about William Byrd in the 16th century, a Catholic clandestinely writing Catholic songs in repressive Protestant England.
“We can never really understand what it was like to be Byrd in Queen Elizabeth’s England. ”
The very first composer named in the book is the 12th-century German mystic Hildegarde de Bingen. It is in the image of the inequalities of society that until the 20th century she was one of the rare women musicians to appear in the pages of the book.
“At the same time, in every era, it’s not true to say that there hasn’t been one,” Gant points out. “If you look, they’re there. these are often specific local circumstances. In Venice, for example, in the 17th century there were a number of very successful female composers like Barbara Strozzi and Francesca Caccini, because Venice was always a little different, a little more democratic and also because they belonged to the families, both musically and politically.
Reading the final chapters of the book, it’s clear that of all the 20th century music forms that have emerged, minimalism may not be Gant’s favorite. “I let my prejudices shine a little there,” he admits.
“I think John Adams is an incredibly interesting and inventive composer, but the minimalism … The whole point of the style is that it brings the music back to its essentials and clearly, if you do that there is a risk that it will. that you finish is repetitive. by definition. And not all of its representatives got over it.
Inevitably, the true history of 20th century music is the interface between classical and popular. The obvious question to ask an Oxford scholar is: Did the Beatles break down all the barriers between the two?
“There is no doubt about the progress made in recent years. If you want to watch the program here at Oxford University, there are articles on jazz and pop music and women in pop that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago and that’s really good.
“But I think where the change really comes, actually, is if you talk to young people. I teach students and for them those barriers just aren’t there. I was talking about Messiaen’s music and of his use of a particular type of scale and a student said, “Oh yeah, there’s a song from Radiohead that does that.” And he pulled out his phone and played.
“It doesn’t help to think that it’s a serious piece of classical music and that it’s a pop song or a musical. They are all trying to do the same thing, which is to use music to communicate something interesting.
This is exactly what he did. We write music, or in Gant’s case, the history of music, because we have to.
Andrew Gant’s Five Straight Lines is published by Profile Books on Thursdays, £ 30
Andrew Gant on his favorite little-known composers:
“The baroque composer Wilhelmine of Prussia, Margarine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, a member not of one but of two great noble families, whose opera Argenore was a real revelation.
“The French symphonist Etienne Méhul, who is intriguingly situated between Mozart and Beethoven.
“And if you go back to my hinterland a bit, there is an English composer by the name of Edmund Hooper, an early 17th century composer. We hear a lot of music from Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, who were his contemporaries, colleagues and friends, and not enough of him, so I’m going to look for him too.