Archive for the ‘Music’ Category.

Un po’ tondo

Every Mozart study states that his last Symphony, “Jupiter” (Köchel 551), is one of humankind’s greatest musical achievements. Every description of the symphony indicates that the first movement borrows a theme from a concert aria. Every one that I have read expresses surprise at this self-borrowing and states that the reason for it is a complete mystery. I think I know that reason.

The theme as it appears in the symphony begins like this:


Click to listen [1]:

That theme is taken from the development of the short concert aria Un Bacia di Mano (A Handkiss) (K 451):


Hear it [2]:

The words sung on this theme are only part of the text, but they are the important part, emphasized and several times repeated:

Voi siete un po’ tondo
Mio caro Pompeo
L’usanze del mondo
Andate a studiar

meaning (my translation):

You are a bit of a simpleton,
My dear Pompeo.
Time for you to get out
And learn the ways of the world.

(Note to my Italian friends: yes, the Italian text  says “tondo”, not “tonto”. It may sound strange to you but apparently that’s how they talked in the settecento. The text, by the way, is attributed, although with no certainty, to Lorenzo Da Ponte.)

(Note to my American friends: yes, the current director of the CIA happens to be called “Pompeo”. From what I read in the news he could benefit from the advice. But let us not digress.)

What is this aria? It belongs to the “interpolated aria” genre, in which a composer would reuse the words of an air from an existing opera and set them to new music. Avoids having to ask a librettist for a new text, pleases singers by giving them bravura pieces, and undoubtedly for Mozart offers an excellent way to show the world how much more he could do, with the same words, than your average court composer. The text to Un bacio di mano originally came from an opera by Pasquale Anfossi.  The context of the aria is standard 18/19-th comedy fare: mock advice to an old man wanting to take a young spouse (as in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale).

All the Mozart biographies and analyses sound puzzled. Why in the world would Mozart, in one of his most momentous and majestic works, his last symphony, also the longest, insert a hint to an aria with such a lowbrow, almost silly subject. Here (from countless examples) is the kind of explanation you read:

Why risk interpolating yet another tune into the concatenation of ideas that he’s already given his listeners, and asked his orchestra to dramatize; and a melody, what’s more, that comes from a different expressive world, the low comedy of opera buffa as opposed to high-minded symphonic discussion? Mozart puts the whole structure of this movement on the line, seemingly for the sake of a compositional joke. It’s a piece of postmodernism avant la lettre, and the kind of thing that Beethoven, for all his iconoclasm, hardly risked in the same way in his symphonies.

Nonsense. Mozart liked jokes, but to think of him as some kind of dodecaphonist putting in random inserts is absurd. He would not include a gratuitous joke in a major work. “Postmodernism avant la lettre”, what is that supposed to mean? Some of the other commenters at least have the honesty to admit that they do not have a clue.

The clue is not so hard to find if you look at the words. In the aria already, the four lines cited break out seemingly from nowhere and through their repetition soar on their own, far above the triviality of the rest of the text. Mozart wanted to showcase this theme of urging a naïve man to get out and learn how the world works. And now, just a few weeks later — the aria is from June 1788, the symphony from July or August  — Mozart is broke, he just lost a child, his wife is sick, he has to beg his friend Puchberg for money, his stardom as a boy wonder is long gone, audiences (he thinks) have moved on, no one truly recognizes his genius. Other, more docile composers have decent, stable positions with a prince here or a duke there, and he who wanted to play the proud independent artist can hardly feed his family. He could have been organist at Versailles, and turned down the position [4] as below him; which it was, but at least it was a position. Here he is, the greatest genius of musical history, composing a symphony like no one else could even conceive of, and he sits alone in his study with his wife coughing next door. He may not want to admit it, but deep down he feels that he has not long to live. Not one for self-pity, he looks sarcastically at his hungry self: you poor naïve soul, you never wanted to be a mere Anfossi or Salieri, and so you did not condescend to bow and smile humbly and flatter like everyone else did. You were so far above the rest of them that sooner or later the world was going to give you the recognition you deserve. Now this dirty attic. You are a bit of a simpleton, my dear Wolfie. Isn’t it time you got out, and learned the ways of the world?

That is the logical and human explanation. Do not ask for historical proof; it is a conjecture. But listen to the music, think of Wolfgang Amadeus in his mansard, read the words, and it will dawn on you too that this was what he meant when quoting his own looney tune.

Notes and references

[1] From Mackerras (Scottish Chamber Orchestra) performance here (first movement only). More performances (complete symphony) here.

[2] From the Bryn Terfel performance here. See more performances here. One is by José van Dam, of whom I am generally a great fan, but here I find the tempo too slow; same for the Thomas Hampson version. The Fischer-Dieskau recording is not what one would expect. Note that the aria is originally for a bass but most of these performances are by barytones (which is fine too). The Jardin des Voix (William Christie) video is fun.

[3] Symphony guide: Mozart’s 41st , see here.

[4] See e.g. here from Mozart, by Robert Gutman. Think of the effect on the later history of French music if he had been of a different mind!

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 9.3/10 (3 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Hungarian rotation

The 2013 Informatics Europe “Best Practices in Education” award was devoted, this year, to initiatives for teaching informatics in schools [1].  It was given out last week at the European Computer Science Summit in Amsterdam [2]. Two teams shared it, one from Poland and the other from Romania. Both teams showed excellent projects, but the second was beyond anything I expected.

The project comes from the Hungarian-speaking Sapientia University in Transylvania and is devoted to teaching algorithms visually and “at the same time enhancing intercultural communication” in the region. It illustrates the classical sorting algorithms through folk dances. Quicksort is Hungarian, selection sort is gypsy, merge sort is “Transylvanian-saxon”. I think my favorite is Shell sort [3]. For more, see their YouTube channel [4].

Now  if only they could act the loop invariants [5].


[1] 2013 Best Practices in Education award, see here.

[2] 2013 European Computer Science Summit, here.

[3] “Shell sort with Hungarian (Székely) folk dance”, see here.

[4] YouTube Algorythmics channel, here.

[5] Carlo Furia, Bertrand Meyer and Sergey Velder: Loop invariants: Analysis, Classification and Examples, in ACM Computing Surveys, Septembre 2014, to appear, available here.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 9.1/10 (10 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +5 (from 7 votes)

Barenboim = Rubinstein?


I have always admired Daniel Barenboim, both as a pianist and as a conductor — and not just because years ago, from pictures on disk covers, we looked strikingly alike, see e.g. [1] which could almost be me at that time (Then I went to see him in concert and realized that he was a good 15 centimeters shorter; the pictures were only head-and-shoulders. Since that time the difference of our physical appearances has considerably increased, not compensated, regrettably, by any decrease of the difference of our musical abilities.)

Nowadays you can find lots of good music, an unbelievable quantity in fact, on YouTube. Like this excellent performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto [2] by Barenboim with a Danish orchestra.

If you go to that page and expand the “about” tab an interesting story unfolds. If I parse it right (I have no direct information) it is a record of a discussion between the person who uploaded the video and the YouTube copyright police. It seems YouTube initially rejected the upload on the basis that it violated no fewer than three different copyrights, all apparently for recordings of the concerto: one by the Berlin Philharmonic (pianist not named), one by Arthur Rubinstein (orchestra not named), and one by Ivan Szekely (orchestra not named). The uploader contested these copyright claims, pointing out that the performers are different in all four cases. It took a little more than a month before YouTube accepted the explanation and released the video on 22 April 2012.

Since the page clearly listed  the performers’ names and contained a full video, the initial copyright complaints must have been made on the basis of the audio track alone. Further, the detection must have been automatic, as it is hard to imagine that either YouTube or the copyright owners employ a full staff of music experts to listen all day to recordings on the web and,  once in a while, write an email of the form “I just heard something at http://musicsite.somewhere that sounds suspiciously close to bars 37-52  of what I remember from the `Adagio un poco mosso’ in the 1964 Rubinstein performance, or possibly his 1975 performance, of Beethoven’s Emperor“. (The conductor in Rubinstein’s 1975 recording, by the way, is… Daniel Barenboim.) Almost certainly, the check is done by a program which scours the Web for clones.

It seems, then, that the algorithm used by YouTube or whoever runs these checks can, reasonably enough, detect that a recording is from a certain piece of music, but — now the real scandal — cannot distinguish between Rubinstein and Barenboim.

If this understanding is correct one would like to think that some more research can solve the problem. That would assume that humans can always distinguish performers. On French radio there used to be a famous program, the “Tribune of Record Critics“, where for several hours on every Sunday the moderator would play excerpts of a given piece in various interpretations, and the highly opinionated star experts on the panel would praise some to the sky and excoriate others (“This Karajan guy — does he even know what music is about?“).  One day, probably an April 1st,  they broadcast a parody of themselves, pretending to fight over renditions of Beethoven’s The Ruins of Athens overture while all were actually the same recording being played again and again. After that I always wondered whether in normal instances of the program the technicians were not tempted once in a while to switch recordings to fool the experts. (The version of the program that runs today, which is much less fun, relies on blind tasting, if I may call it that way.) Presumably no professional listener would ever confuse the playing of Barenboim (the pianist) with that of Rubinstein. Presumably… and yet reading about the very recent Joyce Batto scandal [3], in which a clever fraudster  tricked the whole profession  for a decade about more than a hundred recordings, is disturbing.

If my understanding of the situation regarding the Barenboim video is correct, then it remarkable that any classical music recordings can appear at all on YouTube without triggering constant claims of copyright infringement; specifically, any multiple recordings of the same piece. In classical music, interpretation is crucial, and one never tires of comparing performances of the same piece by different artists, with differences that can be subtle at times and striking at others. Otherwise, why would we go hear Mahler’s 9th or see Cosi Fan Tutte after having been there, done that so many times? And now we can perform even more comparisons without leaving home, just by browsing YouTube. Try for example Schumann’s Papillons by Arrau, Kempf, Argerich and — my absolute favorite for many years — Richter. Perhaps a reader with expertise on the topic can tell us about the current state of plagiarism detection for music: how finely can it detect genuine differences of interpretation, without being fooled by simple tricks as were used in the Batto case?

Still. To confuse Barenboim with Rubinstein!

References and notes

[1] A photograph of the young Barenboim: see here.

[2] Video recording of performance of Beethoven’s 5th piano concert by Daniel Barenboim and Det kongelige kapel conducted by Michael Schønvandt on the occasion of the Sonning Prize award, 2009, uploaded to YouTube by “mugge62” and available here.

[3] Wikipedia entry on Joyce Hatto and the Barrington-Coupe fraud, here.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 8.8/10 (8 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +3 (from 5 votes)