Monday, November 19, 2018

Nothing but the truth?

People who have seen "Amadeus," and even people who haven't, when asked if they think the movie is presenting actual history usually hedge their bets a little. Being sophisticated, worldly types, we all know Hollywood tends to stretch the truth, play with it, or bury it completely if the result is at least supposed to provide a more entertaining alternative. But of course, when asked about the life of Mozart, what comes out is from the movie. And why not? That's all most people know. They didn't read books about him, program notes, pamphlets: most people spend no time at all thinking about Mozart, or even being particularly curious. So, naturally, the movie, even if we know it probably is not exactly true, still represents Mozart in our minds, if only because it has no competition.

This can be frustrating for people who know that history and would really prefer people didn't get their history from entertainment, and consequently get the two of them mixed up.

If you happen to be particularly scrupulous in this regard, there are plenty of resources out there to try and help you sort out the truth from the not-so-truthful.

But if that's all you're after, you're kind of missing the point of Amadeus. It isn't a documentary, that's for sure. It isn't really meant to be used to teach people about Mozart (this means you, music teachers!). Its relationship to history is actually quite complicated. Some things are carefully researched; some things are made up, but with a pedigree. And there is value in knowing the history itself, because when you do, you can start to appreciate the genius of the dramatist and how bits of what really happened provide the jumping off point for something completely new and important. But you're still missing the point.

"Amadeus" is a work of art. It isn't meant to tell us what happened, or how it happened. In order to "get it" we need to be looking in a different direction completely. And that, in the end, is where this blog series will be leading us.

Bring your preconceived notions. And a lighter.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Blogging Amadeus

One of the greatest movies ever made about a composer--which is not really about the life of a composer at all--is the movie "Amadeus." Based on a play by Peter Shaffer, directed by Milos Forman, it was released in theaters in 1984, and is now available on DVD in a "director's cut" in which some scenes that were cut for time in the theatrical release were restored in what is now a three-hour run time. Since you don't have to watch it all at once this is more than justified, although if you have a young audience, some of the deleted scenes might better be passed over. In one of them we see a little more of Mrs. Mozart than the film review board might be comfortable with.

I've recently taught a course on this movie, and thought it would be worth trying to translate some of it into a blog series, partly to help teachers who want to use the movie in their classrooms, as well as general film buffs who wondered about the historical authenticity of the film and other matters. And if any of my students would like to use this blog to continue the conversation--or if anyone else wants to jump in--you are welcome.

This blog series will take place on Mondays. (Mondays=Mozart). I plan to follow the general outline of the class, which began with a lengthy prologue in which we discussed the film as history or not, and if not, what it actually is and how we might appreciate it even if we find fault with it, then got into the actual history of the people involved, found out where Peter Shaffer got his ideas for the film by tracing a Viennese rumor through a poem by Pushkin and an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, and then dove into the film itself, not entirely in score order, taking on various big topics as the occasion warranted.

See you back here on Monday!

Friday, November 9, 2018

Fake Blog

This isn't a political blog, and on Monday I plan to go back to writing about Mozart. But in the wake of the Synagogue shooting here in Pittsburgh, when I felt it necessary to both show support for the victims and try to imagine what drives people to go shoot their fellow human beings, I thought I would add my voice to the concern over a really basic problem we have in this country right now. That would be the refusal to agree on basic reality.

I have two examples, the first of which is much less destructive than the second. It concerns several people on Facebook who were ridiculing a tweet that supposedly came from Nancy Pelosi. Now before we go on let me make clear that this has nothing to do with whether or not you like Nancy Pelosi. I can think of several reasons not to. Having an opinion that ranges from extreme admiration to total disgust is still an opinion, and we are all entitled to ours. Nonetheless, the proxy object of scorn was the tweet itself, which read in part "I am angry at Donald Trump for allowing Americans to keep more of what they earn."

Obviously, this was an attempt to describe the tax cut. And obviously, there is a problem with it. Nancy Pelosi did not write it.

How do we know? Three ways. The first is that this does not pass the smell test. No Democrat is going to use the phrase "allowing Americans to keep more of what they earn" to describe a tax bill that was passed by Republicans. "Asking wealthy Americans to pay their fair share" would make more sense. You can agree with the first formulation or the second depending on how you interpret this bill. But if you know anything at all about political spin and the language used by different politicians to describe the same event, you know that that first version is a Republican talking point, and makes no sense coming out of the mouth of a Democrat.

Nonetheless, people were lined up around the virtual water cooler to insist that, even for Nancy Pelosi, this was the dumbest thing she ever said.

Sigh. We really should have done a better job teaching reading comprehension in schools.

Somebody else pointed out that the website snopes, com, which makes it its business to investigate the truth of various claims, has declared this tweet to be fake.

Then another individual noticed a watermark in the corner of the tweet showing that it was from a website that allows anyone to create their own tweets that look like they came from anyone's account.

Despite and still, people kept ridiculing Ms. Pelosi on the basis of that tweet. If they'd said the tweet was fake but they still thought she was awful, that would be one thing. That they kept insisting on the tweet's authenticity shows a reckless disregard for reality. They weren't going to let a few facts get in the way of their hatefest, apparently.


For the second example I'm going to reach back all the way to the Middle Ages. It is far more sinister, and while it is ancient history, and could lead us to feel good about how we aren't doing things like that anymore, I think the recent shooting should keep us from getting too comfortable about the notion of human progress.

The Jewish people, and anybody who hasn't spent their entire life in a cave, is aware that there has been and continues to be mindless hate toward Jews, often leading to horrific actions.

One of the myths that refused to die during this time was the notion that Jews would kidnap Christian babies and sacrifice them during their strange rituals. Now, anybody who knows the slightest thing about Judaism knows this to be a steaming pile of utter ridiculousness.

In one bizarre example, a man was accused of just such a crime. He was executed for it, too, despite not only the complete lack of evidence, but the fact the nobody in the village or anywhere in the area had even reported a child missing!

The impossibility that he could have committed the crime did not get in the way of the people's need to exercise their hate on a people they believed to be a threat. They did so often. They continue to do it. The man who shot the people at Tree of Life insisted that his own people (Aryans?) were being "slaughtered." This is apparently, what in his mind justified the killing of all those people.

Most of us, from all over the political spectrum, agree that that mind is diseased. Unfortunately, there are ways, large and small, in which people are no longer able to agree over basic reality. This is clearly not something new in human history; it is, unfortunately, fairly common. But when we insist that something or someone who is basically peaceful is an existential threat to our existence despite a complete lack of evidence we go from reasonable caution to a justification for the most horrific acts of violence.

Ask the graves at Auschwitz.

Friday, November 2, 2018

In Harm's Way

I've never understood why people don't think it can happen here. Sooner or later, it is going to happen here.

If here is my neighborhood, then last Saturday, it very much did. Evil made a stop in Pittsburgh on its never-ending tour. It was brought to us by the same combination of psychotic episodes and violent rhetoric as the rest. A man who thought the world was out to get him, egged on by others with a similar mindset and a President who derives power from convincing America to be scared silly by everybody that doesn't look like them.

If that seems unnecessarily political and unfair to you, you should look into their respective twitter accounts. The language of the President and the language used by the shooter are almost identical. Both warn of "invasions" by "those people" and are not in the least subtle that they have to be "stopped." The only difference is in which group is being targeted. But you can't pick and choose when you are unleashing the forces of fear and death. Those don't respect boundaries around the people you think will vote for you. You might recall that those Nazis in Charlotte were chanting that "Jews will not replace us." The "good people," you know.

The shooter did go the President one better, however. He said, in his last tweet that he was "tired of watching my people get slaughtered. I'm going in," he said.

Slaughtered? What in the ever living hell does he mean? Who is slaughtering whom here?

This is the language of violence. It is always convincing itself that it is actually the target of those other people, and that it is just trying to protect itself. And then somehow six million Jews wind up dead because they were supposedly the aggressors. Those Nazis were just trying to defend themselves from a vast world conspiracy.


The problem is, you can't argue with fear. If you try to tell it is hasn't got a freaking clue it just assumes you are the enemy. Part of the problem. You don't get it, it says venomously. But you the end--when we shoot all of you.

After an incident of mass killing people are understandably worried. But then the fear farmers fan the flames: It wasn't Jews that guy was after (even though he said it was) any more than that fellow who shot up a church full of Black people was after African Americans (even though he said exactly that). No, you and me, Joe and Jill White Anglo-Saxon Protestant better be really worried. Worried enough to let our civil rights vanish as fast as they can. Also, buy all the assault rifles you can, before some Democrat takes them all away.

Tree of Life Synagogue is about two blocks from the church where I play. Folks here are talking about locking doors, getting more's already a challenge for a new person to find their way in to the building (most churches have about a dozen, and only one of them is unlocked), and to be welcomed. Now it's going to require a degree in it.

There is, of course, no guarantee that some Sunday morning we won't all be mowed down during a service--even Joe Protestant, though that is a lot less likely if you are not a minority or black or a non-Christian group, much as fear-mongers like to blur the lines so they can spread fear everywhere. About the only thing that is guaranteed is that some people will use that as an excuse to stoke more fear and tell us the solution is to arm ourselves all the more and trust each other all the less. It will seem reasonable to some, and an absolute necessity to others. After all, those folks who stockpiled all the weapons out of fear the government was going to get them did end up dead in the end, didn't they? It would never occur to them that the only reason the government was even concerned about them in the first place was because of their arsenal. People of Fear never consider the possibility that they might themselves seem a threat to others, so full are they of their own fear that other people are out to get them. What is really bizarre is the size of that threat. It can be people carrying signs, or kneeling, or being Jewish (or black, or gay, or left-handed, or liberal). And somehow, the way to deal with that threat is with lead bullets. The white male thinks he is under assault in America, so he goes and buys an assault rifle.

There doesn't seem to be anything one can do about that. You can't laugh at fear--it thinks everybody is doing that already (they're all laughing at us!) and it just furthers their sense of persecution. You can't argue with it. It just thinks you are too stupid to know what's really going on. And you can't acknowledge it: it just gets bigger and bolder. The least you can do is not encourage it. But in any case,  it does its thing in our midst, and some of us, living with the ever-present possibility of getting shot, live our lives anyway, trying to do what is right and good, not turning to the right or to the left,  not giving in. And if we die, we die. I've been seeing this attitude everywhere lately, this goodness and mercy that some people feel doesn't exist because it doesn't fit their fear. Feeling persecuted all the time does shrink your perspective. It doesn't help your reasoning powers, either. I still recall an online comment from one guy to the effect that soon it was going to be illegal to be a white male in this country. I wonder which mostly white, male legislature he thought was going to pass such a law.

There were vigils in Squirrel Hill last weekend, and a protest. At the protest there were signs from every community that has been abused by our current leader. And there were words in support of all of them. The Jewish community doesn't stand alone here. This weekend everyone is invited to Synagogue. Everybody, united.

It is strange how many people think of division: just as the people with the signs are often seen as a bigger threat than the people with the guns, the ones using words like "invasion" and "infestation" to describe people are supposed to be the uniters and the people who don't find this bullying acceptable are the dividers.

Meanwhile, in our neighborhood, people who are "supposed to" be enemies are coming together. The Muslim community was first in line to donate to the relief fund for the Jewish community. (They know that this week it was your people; next week it may be ours). Every day, usually in small ways, people are not only polite to each other, they are looking out for each other. It seems like an alternate reality. Something you'd never believe unless you were a part of it. It is as if there are two kingdoms, filled with very different citizens, defined by who they love and who they hate, occupying the same space, but living two very different realities. They bump into each other on the street, but they are going in opposite directions.

Friday, October 26, 2018

It is a dark and stormy night

I'm writing this on a night when the weather is most fowl, dark, and Novemberish, with more than a hint of gloom; wet, and cold. Fit for contemplation from a distance.

Fit for tales from the beyond.

Here's one I like to bring out for Halloween--a musical tale. It was written by someone long dead, and unidentified, intended to be played on the organ, that thunderous instrument that inspires terror in so many who dare not approach any building in which it may be housed, awe in those who do. Be prepared for the former reaction.

Reduentes in La (anon.; from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, 15th, century)

Its connection with Halloween is tenuous; I mostly put it there because the opening note sounds like another, more famous composition also associated with the spooky occasion (and also speciously). And, it is old. Very old.

We often find old things to be frightening.

Whoever wrote this piece is long dead. Their bones may be lying in the ground somewhere, all the flesh long eaten away. What they thought, and how they lived and whom they loved and what they did with their spare time if they had any, and what they thought of the king and how they died, is all a mystery that they carried to their grave.

But such speculation may be overshooting the mark a little. Most of us probably find old things frightening simply because they are unfamiliar.

I spend much of my time these days in the French, Gothic building pictured above. That photograph is a little dramatic: taken from an angle certain to make things intimidating, and of a part of the architecture that frowns more than some parts of the building; nevertheless, I fear it not. But then, it is part of my regular rounds. I don't fear the sounds of the organ, either, though an occasional thrill still runs through me during the performance of some compositions, no matter how often I play them. I should probably try one of them on Halloween with the lights off.

I might have lost something back there, before I became too well acquainted with history, and architecture, and the plots of scary movies that are actually fairly predictable much of the time, and have lost the thrill of the unfamiliar. But I hear the strains from that piece from so long ago and can't help thinking about the Black Death. Is that too pedestrian because it is real? I'm sure it frightened many persons in its day. It could again.

Maybe our mystery composer was among them.

I wonder what that person experienced. Was the church cold? Was the ink runny? Was there an interruption between measure three and four, and 14 and 15, or did the work flow pleasantly on a warm spring afternoon by the churchyard. In solitude or harassed by parishioners demanding things constantly? Were there cares at home? Were they proud of their work? Was it borne of inspiration, perspiration, some of both?

Which is more frightening: that we will never know the answer to any of these questions, or that the vast bulk of humanity really doesn't care in the least. We are all too busy hurrying to our own graves to care about someone we'll never meet who inconsiderately beat us to it.

Sleep well, my friends. It is a dark and stormy night.

Friday, October 19, 2018


I didn't want 2018 to get too far gone without taking note of some of the composer anniversaries. There have been plenty of Leonard Bernstein celebrations in the US, of course, this year being the 100th anniversary of his birth. Bernstein didn't write a great deal for the piano, and I don't play what he did write. Also, it's all under copyright so I can't legally record any of it. But you have probably gotten plenty of Bernsteinania elsewhere so I don't feel too bad about the omission.

There are some deathiversaries as well. Claude Debussy's is the biggest. He died in 1918--I haven't posted much about him, either, though there are a few short piano pieces in the archive.

But since the internet doubtless has him covered, it is worth mentioning a couple of smaller figures that might not be getting the blanket coverage.

One is Cesar Cui. I wrote about him in the spring, I think, when I discovered a little organ piece which I recorded. You can read the blog and listen to the piece here.

There is one more from the archive, though, and it stands right at the top of the page of piano music. The page is listed alphabetically by composer, so this fellow gets to be right at the top, even pulling rank on venerable Johann Sebastian Bach.

I'm talking about Felix Arndt. He didn't live very long, and the flu epidemic of 1918 didn't help. What he did compose would be classed as novelty piano, which I don't really specialize in. But a few years ago I was playing a concert in an old vaudeville theater and a short post-intermission crowd pleaser seemed in order. I chose Nola, a piece he wrote for his fiancee, the eponymous princess of his heart, a person, not a city.

Over the Christmas break I remember practicing the piece in the living room of a distant relative (I was really throwing this thing together fast--the four days between Christmas and New Year's Eve were about all the practice I was getting and I was learning this piece from scratch). My host thought she remembered some words.

If you are the right age, you might, too. I think I played the piece slowly enough that you might be able to sing along. Apparently, Liberace made a thing of playing the piece really fast and virtuoso, but I like the elegance of a more stately tempo. Here is my recording, which I made a day after we got the piano back to its environs from the theater to which it had been moved (I don't always take my own pianos when I play on location, just some times!). It might have been some moisture on my shoe, but the pedal squeaked a bit. If you have the recording turned up super high you may notice it. If you notice it, turn it down!

And enjoy the music. Here's Nola:

Nola by Felix Arndt

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Hunt for mid October

Persons from points elsewhere may not have heard, but in Pittsburgh this year the seasons are on the Julian calendar. It snowed through the middle of April, and on Tuesday we had a high of 86F.

It seems wrong to complain about such warm weather, though if you and I have not gotten acquainted, jawing about the calendrical wrongness of the weather is one way to do it. You don't have to email; you can just imagine us agreeing with each other for as long as you want to forestall doing something useful.

A delay in the onset of rotten fall weather (of the rainy November variety), or at least the crisp arabesques of a biting, non-raining October eve, the kind that reminds you of your mortality (which is why they put Halloween where they did), seems like something to laud, and yet the calendar tells us that things are amiss, paradisical atmosphere or no. Besides, it is a little hot out. I could do with some 70s.

There is something particularly grounding about the character of the various seasons. Of course, I am speaking with the bias of someone who grew up in the temperate part of the northern hemisphere, where it is supposed to snow at Christmas and bud at Easter. Halloween is when the trees are supposed to get scraggily, and the earth cold and dark. If it doesn't, we won't have an excuse to put up our Christmas lights by the middle of next week. Though I should point out that the darkness is keeping its part of the bargain.

Having a website has helped make me more aware of the world at large, and the world at large doesn't do anything in harmony. In Australia, everything is starting the bloom. And in Alaska, it's probably been night for a month. I am aware that I have readers from many locations where the situation is very different. I celebrate what I know, sometimes with a vengeance. And I hope you'll forgive my parochialism.

This week I've had visitors from Australia, France, South Korea, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Actually, that was just Wednesday.

Only about half of my readers come from the United States. Actually, a while back I tried checking the box that says google should emphasize the U.S. I wasn't doing it to be isolationist, but it seemed that since everything is in English, it might make more sense to advertise to an English speaking audience. It didn't help. I switched it back, and my user numbers are back up.

Recently I figured out that I could see which cities peopled had logged in from. On Tuesday, the first part of the list reads: San Antonio, Adelaide, Allentown, Azusa, Barcelona, Burgdorf, Camano Island, Cebu City, Chichester, Closer, Colchester, Dallas, Dickinson, Ellensburg, Fairfax, Ghent, Hartford, and Hazen. The app won't let me see the rest. It's fascinating to see things at the city level, particularly when there are places I've never heard of. Where's Burgdorf?

Probably Germany.

It is also possible to see which networks people were using. That doesn't often yield anything interesting, but if someone is using a University computer I can see which college. On Monday I had somebody from the Nevada system of higher education. And the Moscow local telephone network. Also, Carbon Lehigh Intermediate unit 21. A shout-out to my peeps in the 7th grade.

Universities and schools interest me because I have a hunch students are using pianonoise to do their homework. This is mildly depressing because it probably means that most of my readers aren't really having a good time and don't want to be here. I entertain this hunch because my numbers always go down on weekends and holidays.

What, you don't think listening to Mozart or reading about Beethoven is great entertainment for the weekend?

That's cold.