Regular readers of this blog may know that between all the hot jazz and early swing covered here, I also enjoy the pop of several yestercenturies ago. Classical music intrigues and energizes me just as much as jazz, and lately I’ve been on a bit of a Sammartini binge, cramming the Milanese symphonist’s works in whenever and wherever I can: during my morning commute, at the office, in the car, while making dinner, even as I read about other musicians. The music is driving me to distraction and not even working that hard at it.
It’s not just Sammartini’s melodies, which combine easygoing tunefulness with a recognizable “pop” not found in the work of most other Galant composers. The road to addiction is also paved in rhythm, in this case a graceful but muscular swagger, usually on top of a steady pulse to tap along to. With a smaller period instrument ensemble, Sammartini’s music sounds like an eighteenth century big band chart, as though Vincent Lopez’s band switched out saxophones and tuba for strings and a harpsichord.
Sammartini’s music is also relentlessly consonant. There are no spicy chords or far-reaching modulations, nothing to impress any harmony nuts (“harmoniacs?”) in the audience. His works are usually very brief, as much due to historical period as well as the composer’s style. They seem like short stories next to Mozart’s novels and Brahms’s epics. The music is often for string orchestra without any horns or winds, exchanging orchestral color for a textural uniformity that hammers home Sammartini’s point.
That point is lots of melody and rhythm, with just enough harmony to keep things gorgeous and mobile, sound for the here and now without any frills, rarely given over to reflection. Extra musical meanings or historical/contextual details might be interesting but would prove incidental to my experience of the music.
Of course I’m just one classical music listener, and based on my tastes, not a very erudite one. The truth is that Brahms bores me, and that as much as I respect and love Mozart’s music, I’d probably take equal portions of Mozart and Vivaldi to that desert island people keep talking about. I might even take more of Mozart’s concertos than his string quartets! This Sammartini fetish is just the latest nail in the coffin of my aesthetic street cred.
There are probably plenty of scholars as well as concertgoers who could take Sammartini’s music a part in terms of technical or expressive limitations, but musician, musicologist and critic David Hurwitz nails it when he states, “Sammartini is an important composer in the history of the symphony, but that doesn’t mean that he wrote important symphonies.” Hurwitz goes on to characterize the music on the particular Sammartini disc under discussion as unmemorable, a statement of his taste that would be both pointless and a little embarrassing for me to dispute; Hurwitz has listened to and absorbed more music than I ever will; who knows how Sammartini or any of my favorites would sound if I had a fraction of his knowledge and experience?
Yet Hurwitz’s point about the “importance” of Sammartini’s music is even harder to argue, given Sammartini’s short shrift in music history and nearly non-existent place in the classical brethren’s collective conscience. His point is also a little troubling if you happen to really enjoy the music. When you listen to music as anything more than an occasional pastime or background to daily errands, when you take an interest in music not just as an expression of your tastes but of the scope of an art form, “I like it” has much less weight as an aesthetic judgment. If it’s not “important,” it’s frivolous, and frivolity is kryptonite to serious music listeners.
In a post-Mozart, post-Wagner, post-Coltrane and essentially a post-established greatness world, Sammartini’s music may come across as a pleasant confection (two words critics often use in place of “boring” or “bad”). Sammartini’s music tastes good but health-conscious listeners wouldn’t want to gorge themselves on it. Sammartini isn’t even the only snack I have been told I am incorrectly substituting for a meal: ditto for Galuppi versus Wagner, Paisiello versus Rossini and Buster Bailey versus pretty much any jazz soloist out there. The truth is I’m enjoying the meals but snacking a lot between them. I may never be healthy but there are worse ways to grow fat.
Yet it is interesting to consider what it might be like to listen to music without worrying about its importance, as so many fans of pop(ular) music seem to do every day. Of course the joke is that the musicians themselves may not worry about importance at all. Who’s losing out on what here?