Opera of the Year (2): The one that builds its own instruments

Opera of the Year (2): The one that builds its own instruments


norman lebrecht

August 04, 2016

Coming up at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (hcmf) in November:


Surely the most visually arresting work of hcmf//’s first weekend will be the World Premiere of Claudia Molitor‘s hour-long Walking with Partch performed by Ensemble Musikfabrik. In 2012, Musikfabrik set out to re-build the visionary American composer Harry Partch’s unique micro-tonal instruments; and for their continuing ‘pitch 43_tuning the cosmos’ project they have commissioned new works by European composers for these impressive instruments in order to give them a life beyond historic reconstruction.


Harry Partch (c) Betty Freeman/Lebrecht Music&Arts



  • John Borstlap says:

    A couple of examples of what can be expected from this lady:




    Notice the beauty of the writing and the richness of invention…. quite a strong case for the liberation of composing women from the clutches of patriarchal domination.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Tom Wolfe suggested ”a kind of Turbulence Theorem” on how to evaluate a new work of art (maybe we can extend this criterion to new music): “If a work of art or a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it – it was probably great.” Of course, art critics and avant-garde artists (those who are literate enough to know about it) hate Tom Wolfe.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It’s part of postwar modernist ideology. Because some important works in the past got opposition, the ‘progressive narrative’ which claims that developments are determined by ‘groundbreaking works’ creating a line of relevance with all the other works left by the side, is projected into the past to defend contemporary ‘transgressions’. But in reality, many ‘groundbreaking works’ were accepted quickly or even immediately. Also, in this narrative, mixed reception is ignored and the critique highlighted. Most ‘groundbreaking works’ were accepted fairly quickly, and music which was received positively, cannot be considered ‘unimportrant’ for that reason, which is the flip side of the narrative.

        A couple of examples:

        No work of Mozart was ever bood, during his life and ever after.

        Beethoven’s Eroica got a mixed reception, some people found it too difficult and too long, some people immediately recognized it as a masterpiece.

        Chopin’s ‘avantgarde’ music was accepted immediately by the elite for whom it was meant (the Parisian salons).

        Most of Brahms’ greatest works – the requiem, the symphonies, the violin concerto, the 2nd piano concerto – were accepted immediately. Only the 1st piano concerto was severely criticized and only got ‘off the ground’ in the 20th century, which does not mean that therefore, it is a better piece than the rest.

        Wagner’s operas went down very well with audiences; it were the theorists and the critics who got wound-up with protests. Tristan bumped into polite incomprehension for a long time, but Meistersinger, Wallküre and Parsifal were an immediate success.

        Most of Strauss’ works were immediate successes, even Salome and Elektra, which were sensations.

        Mahler always got mixed reception, not because his music was ‘too modern’ for the bourgeois ears, but because of his ‘lapses of taste’: including ‘vulgar material’, folky stuff etc.

        Debussy’s Faun prelude was an immediate success and had to be repeated, while the piece broke almost all traditional rules. His opera Pelleas et Melisande met strong resistance in the beginning (1902) but within a year it was a sensational success and the production was repeated for many years.

        Schoenberg almost always was received negatively, not because he was ‘too modern’ but because audiences felt this music was breaking-down the art form.

        Stravinsky’s Firebird and Petrushka were great successes immediately, as was the Sacre (the premiere, which ended in scandal, was as a ballet for a traditional ballet audience, the concert performance a year later was an immediate sensation).

        And so on and so forth. A cow is an animal, which does not mean that every animal is a cow. The modernist myth is pure fabrication, to sideline critique. It was, and often still is, a way of defending an indefensible position, and a most practical instrument in the hands of the untalented – mostly the only instrument they can handle.

        • Pianofortissimo says:

          Thank you for your digression. Of course I agree and of course most of the avant-garde or sonic art production is just gibberish. The musical avant-garde had gone into a blind alley around 1950, and it never found its way out. Tom Wolfe was ironic, or rather sarcastic, about the “Turbulence Theorem” – in his reportage “The Painted Art” he just told us that the King is naked, and we know that so was the case also in contemporary music.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Thank you…. It’s always a relief to detect pockets of common sense in the field.