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"Hear now how music--actually every art--is desecrated...Two things, or three at best, can pull the ear of a Philistine: 1. when out of a half-dead pianissimo all of a sudden a fortissimo like a partridge roars up; 2. when someone, especially with the violin bow, dances long and slides on the highest rope of the highest tones and now headfirst splashes down into the lowest; 3.when both happens. In such instances, the citizen is no longer master of himself but sweats full of praise."

--Jean Paul

 
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posted September 15, 2005

Topping the Charts

If you weren't busy this summer getting married and moving to another state you may have already heard this, but it gives the culture-mongers among us a chance to bemoan the state of musical taste in our society which is too good to pass by in silence.

In the last week of May something happened in Britain that hadn't happened before. A new number one single topped the charts the likes of which may revolutionize the music industry. Another British invasion, perhaps? Well, not exactly. The song itself is 17 years old, but a few months ago it was made into a cell phone ringtone, and that is apparently what has everybody so excited. Daniel Malmedahl's song "Crazy Frog" which sampled some good-old-fashioned motorcycle revving (which is always good when you can't think of an idea) was reborn as "Crazy Frog Axel F" and was soon making its omnipresence known throughout the world of young people and their cell phones. Lest you think society has gone completely mad, let me assure you that there is no shortage of persons indignant that, as one site puts it, the recent chart topper took its exulted position ahead of, well, real songs, which is what the pop charts traditionally consist of. The catchy ones and the ones best publicized sell well, which makes them chart toppers, and the rest get in there at number 182 or so. It isn't necessarily the quality of the music that makes them sell--still, it can seem a bit disorienting to think that it isn't even necessary to throw a few words over a standard chord progression anymore in order to capture top honors, sort of like a hamster winning the Miss America pageant.

As I say, there are plenty of people fired up about this, and some of the more entertaining submissions can be read at a site called engadget.com, under an article called "Crazy frog ringtone tops British charts, beats out actual music".

At least one person (namely reader number 17) pointed out that it isn't the ringtone itself that has topped the charts, but the song from which it is derived. I imagine serious musicians everywhere are heaving great sighs of relief. So is the music industry, which sells the single for 3 pounds.

The band Coldplay, however, may be a bit jealous, since it was their single "Speed of Sound" that lost out to the cellphone ditty. I never really considered Coldplay to be purveyors of great art.  One of the band's most popular songs, a great favorite with some of my older piano students, has about as much musical information in it as a phone number, and a whole lot of repetition. But then, this is why it is popular music. It is the kind of thing that gets in our heads easily by being short, simple, and heard over and over again. In that respect, it is not all that different than what many of us hear on our cellphones, provided we don't answer them for about three minutes.

I don't want to leave the impression that there is anything glorious about having a cellphone ditty outsell every other article of musical noise in England, even if it is a bit fun to see the music industry have to adapt its monster-sized publicity machine to new uses, and read scandalized citizen's reactions as they predictably lament the end of civilization. Many of the above site's readers said they would leave Britain, while others called their countrymen imbeciles and many used such colorful adjectives as I think I had better warn those of you accustomed to the kind of gentility regularly on display here frequently occur to those who can't think of good literary idea, either. Some of the most heated prophets of societal entropy seem to have become so angry that they have forgotten how to spell or use punctuation. This is probably a result of a hidden message in the ringtone that tells people to cave in to bad grammar.

But for those who are wondering if this is indeed a new low in the history of British music, let me assure you, it is not. Our one-time rulers have in fact a long history of undeveloped taste in music. This may in part stem from an abiding belief that music is merely for recreation and entertainment; letters from the leisure-class in 17th and 18th century England routinely warn their progeny not too take too much of an interest in such a low thing as music, manufacturing being so much more respectable. Consequently, the English manufactured some great pianos (Beethoven's favorite, in fact, came from there) but no composers of any real consequence for two centuries. But attitudes do not always inflict themselves on a society from the top down. Many increasingly prosperous middle class persons wanted to show off their wealth and therefore status by throwing their money at a frivolous thing like music, and they required their young to learn to be fashionably able at the piano as a consequence, thus instituting another chapter in the long history of aping art mainly in order to impress others.

This kind of art naturally requires that it sound difficult without actually demanding too much of the player and especially the listener. A few days ago I was reminded of one such piece when I was researching something else. It is from a genre known as Battle Music, a kind of piece for solo piano, often to be accompanied by noisy friends on percussion, or with special pedals built into the piano for various effects. The pieces, bereft of any real formal design, often featuring a very shallow harmonic vocabulary or a complete lack of genuinely arresting ideas, make up for it in loud noises imitating cannon shots, bugle calls, and other sounds of war, simple to imitate.

The piece I'm going to play for you is called "The Battle of Prague" and it was the top selling piece of British piano music for about half a century (the first half of the 19th, to be particular), which will probably make "Crazy Frog Axel F" seem like a blip in the "going to hell in a hand basket" category of musical outrages. Like its brethren in the battle music class, it is accompanied by an extensive narrative, which appears below.  I'm probably taking the piece quite a bit faster than most amateurs did, which will make it sound more substantial, if you aren't listening carefully. If you are, you may notice that it is basically a lot of typical formulas thrown around one after another without actually going anywhere. The whole thing seems rather well mannered, for a very bloody battle--the real thing occurred between the Prussians and the Austrians in 1757, which does not explain how the Turkish music got in there.* Nor does it explain the sudden appearance of God Save the King, the very British national anthem (good of them to win a battle in which they weren't actually involved), unless we remember that all good Brits love their country, and there is no good reason the Austrians couldn't sacrifice a little historical accuracy for a moment of patriotic chest-thumping on the part of the people who bought the music.
 

The Battle of Prague: A Favorite Sonata for Pianoforte by F. Kotzwara

Slow March; Word of Command (2:03);1st signal cannon (2:31); the bugle call for the Cavalry (2:34); answer to the first signal cannon (2:48); the trumpet call (2:50)

The Attack (3:07) [score is marked "Prussian imperialists"] [low notes beginning at 3:21 are marked "cannon"] ; flying bullets (3:44) trumpets (4:28); Attack with swords (Right hand)/horses galloping (left hand) (4:43); Trumpet Light Dragoons Advancing (bass notes marked "cannon") (5:00); heavy cannonade (5:09); cannons and drums in general (5:27); running fire (5:35); trumpet of recall (6:24) [those last three flourishes in the bass are actually marked "cannon"!];

 Cries of the Wounded (6:48); The Trumpet of Victory (8:05); God Save the King (8:29); Turkish Music (9:42); Finale (10:10) ; Go to Bed, Tom (10:55); Tempo Primo (11:02) [a return to the original tempo of the finale]

Kind of makes war sound like a lot of fun, doesn't it?

 

michael@pianonoise.com