Monday, February 4, 2013

The composer as a ::gasp:: human being

Back in my days at the conservatory I remember mentioning things about various composers to fellow students and being asked "how do you know so much about" x y or z. Well...I read books about composers, that's how. It was a mark of distinction, apparently--certainly not a trait that was carefully cultivated by our professors at this very specialized school for musical performers.We did have a survey course in music history at one point, but mostly, as performers, our mission was to play the music, and to play it well. Our teachers emphasized technique, and musicality as framed by paying attention to those marks in the score. There wasn't what you might call an emphasis on outside knowledge.

In fact, the very idea that knowing anything about the composer's background, biography, political or religious ideas and beliefs, habits of working, relationships and colleagues, or, to broaden the lens, to know something about the era or the culture or the social environment in which the music was produced--to know anything outside of the marks in the score itself--is, strangely, controversial. Why should we know anything at all about the music's creator? There are, and always have been, people who howl when the very mention is made.

I can see a point to that, actually. Abuses can be made in any direction, and in the case of one who wants to know something that the score itself doesn't tell you, there is always the possibility that you'll become fixated on that "extramusical" knowledge and start seeing every Bb as an expression of the composer's feelings about X or Y and pay little attention to the staccato dots on top. The average music lover, the non-musician, often values anecdotes about the emotional lives about composers or something that will reinforce the idea that every genius has some kind of social disorder above trying to actually listen to the music itself as it unfolds. Musical structure, grammar, and logic is a lot harder to grasp than being shocked about Beethoven's hair.

But there are reasons to avoid the opposite attitude as well. Not wanting to know anything you can't find out from that particular piece of music (which might include other pieces of music as well at which point you can't use the composer's general practices to help you with an ambiguity) is also a close ally to laziness. After all, not wanting to know is also not wanting to know. Or not bothering.

Still, if you asked me if knowing that Prokoffiev smoked two packs a day makes me prolong that C# in measure 29 I'd have to tell you that's a silly question. I can't tell you that there is no relation whatever between the two, but I very much doubt it.

And yet, I can't imagine the total mass of what we can know about a composer, particularly what was in their head, how they expressed themselves in words as well as music, what their culture valued and whether they conformed to it, what sort of ambitions they had, doesn't somehow add to the picture of what to do with a general marking like "allegro"--for instance, Mozart complained about at least one person who played his piano works too quickly (in his presence). He also said that the music should "flow like oil" which probably argues for a certain suavity in passages that aren't marked staccato. It's too bad we don't have any recordings to know for sure. But personal views are something, aren't they?

Last week I found a little book from my past. It was a volume of Children's Pieces written by Sergei Prokoffiev. I was assigned one of them as a child and now decided to play them all. I made a recording; the first four of the twelve pieces are below. I'll put the rest on the blog later so I can write about them (or, if you can't wait, they're up en masse over at in the "listen" section).

I couldn't help thinking about the difference in what I know about Prokoffiev now, and what I knew then, which was next to nothing. For one thing, I've played enough of his music to recognize certain imprints, and to feel like an old friend is talking. I understand the harmonic twists and turns, the strange dynamic shifts, the percussive outbursts in the middle of tender lyricism--or I think I do.

I've also read a book about him. It isn't a biography. Simon Morrison has a book from 2009 that deals with Prokoffiev's later career. It deals with a strange decision Prokoffiev made in 1936 to return to the Soviet Union. He had left Russia in 1918 like so many others, but unlike Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, et al, he decided to go back, and spent the rest of his life under the glare of Stalin and the bureaucratic wheels of the people who saw to it that Soviet art wasn't too "western."

Prokoffiev wrote these Children's Pieces one summer at the cottage of a friend, watching children at play, and generally enjoying a peaceful existence. It was the year before his return to the Soviet Union. It may have been one of the happiest interludes in the composer's life.

Does it matter? The music is the music. But I can tell you I don't hear it the same way I did as a child. It's different now. For a lot of reasons. It would take a long time to figure out why, never mind blog about them. And that's part of the issue, I guess. There are a lot of pitfalls to knowing a composer's story. It is easy to see correlations that aren't there. Sunny pieces turn out to have been music written by suicidal composers and vice versa. Composers who write the most profound and moving masses for the church turn out to have been atheists. Someone who writes some of the best loved literature for the flute turns out to have hated the instrument. But that's the way it is with all knowledge. It doesn't reward that kind of simplicity often. The total mass, the web, of knowledge, enriches our understanding despite all the blind alleys.

Prokoffiev: Children's Pieces
1 morning
2 promenade
3 a little story
4 scherzo.

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