Music and place - the neglected dimension
Given its affinity with his perennially popular American Quartet, it is surprising that Dvořák’s String Quintet is not better known. Both the American Quartet and the String Quintet were composed when the composer was staying in the small Czech settlement of Spillville, Ohio, and my header photo shows a mural in the town commemorating his visit. While Dvořák was in Spillville he attended a ritual performance by visiting North American Indians of the Kickapoo tribe. We can only speculate on how the Quintet was influenced by the music of the Kickapoo, who are survivors of a culture described by Andrew Harvey as ‘voices of the first world’. But if that portrayal of an inspired Dvořák in Spillville is accurate, his Quintet was almost certainly the product of what Buddhists call ‘fragrant learning’. This is the assimilation of wisdom by unintentional absorption; just as clothing absorbs the fragrance of temple incense, so humans are affected by the atmosphere of a place from simply being there.
Fragrant learning by composers is a recognized phenomenon, with Britten’s assimilation of the atmosphere of the Suffolk coast into his music being one of the most celebrated examples. But ‘fragrant listening’, the influence of the listening environment on the audience, is almost unexplored, although the phenomena of ‘toxic listening’ – mobile ringtones and coughing during concerts – is well known. It is beyond dispute that one attribute of the listening environment, the hall acoustic, has a significant impact on how music is heard. But other more arcane attributes also have an impact, which means fragrant listening is relevant to the current debate about making classical music more accessible by moving it from concert halls. And given that music via mobile devices is the current big thing, and that music via in car web access will be the next big thing, it is puzzling that the relation between listening and place has been neglected. Two years ago I wrote that “There is clear evidence that classical music struggles to work at more than one remove. It is written for live performance in a concert hall and that is where it works its magic best”. More on listening and place here.
Dvořák’s String Quintet and Septet in delectable performances by the Raphael Ensemble have been reissued on a budget CD by Hyperion - if these works are not in your collection they should be. Header photo credit is Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra blog. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). No review samples were used in the preparation of this post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.
There's a lovely children's book about Dvorak in Spillville, writing of the American Quartet, called Two Scarlet Songbirds; I read it with my young son, who plays violin, in order to introduce him to the Quartet.
A few days ago I asked whatever happened to classical music's long tail? Similarly I could ask whatever happened to the promise that the internet would level the geographic playing field?
It would be interesting to look at all the promises made for new media and work out how many have actually been delivered.
The one promise that has been delivered, I think, is availability. The hunt for exclusivity and 'nichiness' actually helps classical/nonpop. Most composers today have already been heard far more than Mozart in his own time, and I would guess most of them are actually listened to with interest.