Friday, December 13, 2019

Parker's Pastorale

One of my Christmas obsessions for the past several years has been a musical genre known as the Pastorale. Five years ago I wrote a ten part series about these pieces which are connected to shepherds and the countryside and can therefore seem to have a connection to Christmas as well. It is an idyllic picture these composers paint in sound, of a countryside with which many of these city dwellers are none too familiar. But the reason I wrote about them in the first place is that I noticed a few that were not textbook examples--that is, they might have displayed some of the characteristics of the pastoral proper (drone bass, dotted rhythm, triple time, slow and/or quiet), but in other respects they hardly resembled what I would have though was a pastorale at all. Since then I've added a few more specimens to the catalog, some in four/four time, some which sound more like polkas, some which have no drone bass at all, and then there is this one...

This one is loud and fast. But it is in triple time, with a rocking bass, and a rollicking tune. It comes to us from one Horatio Parker. I wasn't looking for a pastorale when I found it, in fact...what WAS I looking for, anyway?

Well, that's the internet. Whatever I was looking for, I happened to notice that Horatio Parker died on December 18, 1919, which means that this coming Wednesday is the 100th anniversary of his death. Composers often get celebrated on the occasions of their major year birthdays, or, failing that, on the major anniversaries of their death. Musicologists must be a macabre bunch.

Parker may not be a familiar name to you: he was a professor at Yale in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and a pretty celebrated composer in his time. Now he is mostly remembered for a cantankerous student he had once named Charles Ives. (His "Hora Novissima" gets occasionally performed, too).

So due to a "vortex of combined circumstances" (which is a phrase I stole from Dostoyevsky, who has nothing at all to do with the present entry) this year's pastorale comes to us from Horatio Parker. As I mentioned, it is loud, and brisk. It is marked "con brio" and it is possible I played it with a bit too much "brio" but I rather like it that way.

One thing that I would prefer to complain about, however, is the key relationship between the first and second sections. This is the place where, at 1:11 of the present recording, the first part ends in F major, and suddenly we start up in Db,  which does not sound like it has any present business in the piece at all. Now technically there is a fancy name for this: it is called a common tone modulation, and it was done throughout the 19th century by some very reputable composers. I can even hear some of my former conservatory colleagues in my head bringing this up loudly, and with an air of "you are an idiot for supposing that this was a bad idea on Parker's part. It is a perfectly pedigreed key relationship, therefore it is by definition a good thing to have done."

But no. Just because a textbook, or custom, or tradition, or an illustrious example, says so, that it has worked in the past when it was done by great composers of the past, does not mean it will work here. And the reason it does not work here is that the composer has not, at any point, so much as introduced a Db major chord or an Ab major chord, or any harmony that had even remotely anything to do with the tonal world of Db major before he suddenly sprung it on us, full bore, at the start of the second section. Having a single note, F, in common between both key areas simply isn't enough to establish a strong enough connection, or any sense that the narrative went where it wanted to go, rather than merely where the rules said it could, if handled properly.

Let's talk about football. You get the idea?

(by the way, Bach does a brilliant job in his pastorale of getting us from the third movement's c minor back to F Major. That shouldn't really work (given the Eb), but he gives us enough strategic Dbs (leading up to the final C major chord) that the narrative flows brilliantly. But he's Bach.)

Enough weeds. Those who were lost can now sigh with relief and listen to this nice little piece. It is clear to me that this piece was written by a professor, rather than a creative genius, and it is a nice example according to a nice textbook rather than an inspired piece, but it will still be worth your five minutes.

(also, the re-transition works out just fine).

Listen to Pastorale by Horatio Parker

Friday, December 6, 2019

What happened to Christmas?

For several years now, I have been watching with interest the doings of the little people atop our entertainment center as each December they enact a series of strange variations upon the traditional Christmas creche. No sooner had I adjusted to their peculiar games of sheep tossing or thrilled to the dramatic attempt of the wise men to arrive on the proper shelf in time for Christmas than I got sued for letting our cable box too near the stable. That was last year. By then, I had already gotten to talk to Mary and Joseph by email--a delightful couple. I am not the grudge holding type, and fences were mended with a very large Christmas cookie. I was already looking forward to next year's adventure when a very regrettable thing happened.

One of the cast members did not make it back into the box for storage last year. We noticed him some time in February, peering timidly out from behind a plant. It was too late to retrieve the box, packed snugly into its regular storage position. Instead, we tried to make him comfortable until he could join his fellows. He kept a diary, and has allowed me to publish excerpts from it. First I had to copy it to several times its original size. The entries are enlightening. Alas, they do not cast us humans in the best light always. But even--perhaps, especially--at Christmas, it is worth reflecting on the views of a small person on the society in which he involuntarily found himself, fish out of water, a figure without a tableaux, creche-person without a creche, in the long year between Christmases:

I don't remember the box very well. It seems to me now that it had the singular smell of warm wooden shavings, the odor of wise men, the curly shavings of the sheep, and old drops of glue. It was a comfortable box. I enjoyed being in it, but it must have also contained large quantities of ether, because nearly as soon as I entered it I was fast asleep. How pleasant to awaken from a long slumber every December in order to stand gloriously with my cast-mates in our long accustomed positions. It is far above my power to understand fully what we are doing, but the situation fills me with a deep abiding peace and the sense that everything is as it should be, as it was long ago, and as it shall be again. Mine is but a small part in it, but it is important, because everything is important, and sacred, and necessary. Time passes, even though it is a door to eternity: there is still the anticipation and then the great moment, which is every moment, and yet not come soon enough, if you get my drift. It is a joyful season. Below me I can see large creatures scurrying about and hear pleasant sounds emanating through the room. Candles are lit, food is prepared, hearts rejoice, and it is all a pleasant, slowly unfolding dream. Why do you hurry, ye mortals? Join us in the creche, and pause, and ponder and---

OH GOD, what happened?

I just realized the dream has evaporated. Was it a dream? I thought it was reality! What happened to the creche? Where are the wise-persons? Where have Mary and Joseph gone? Who am I supposed to adore now? I even tried calling desperately for the sheep. There is no sign of them. I am alone. I have no idea what to do now. Before I didn't need to do anything. I stood, and adored. It was enough. Now it is just stupid. Where is everybody? I am alone.

It has taken some time to piece together the catastrophe. One of the large creatures has noticed me and lamented my condition. I was horrified. Once I realized I was cast from Eden I sensed the danger I was in. I was afraid, and I hid. But I was spotted. And a strange thing happened. I heard him speak. Where once we of the creche experienced time more slowly than the mortals down below, and only had a general sense of them hurrying about, in a Christmas that might have lasted mere seconds if experienced it in linear time, but was as full and rich as could have left nobody wanting more, now the passage of time seems drawn out, and endless, and empty. I could hear him say "oh my, we seem to have left you behind when we packed up from Christmas." Then he sighed. "Well, there is no point in dragged the box out again. I guess you will have to stay with us for a while." I was filled with an ominous foreboding. 

One observation I have made in the past month: there is a good deal of time to think. Since my job has always been to stand and ponder I may be better equipped for this than some, but it is still taxing to the faculties to have to live within a new reality and to try to understand what has happened and what will happen. I have been living what you might call a regular schedule. Now it is unknown. I have always known there was an occasion called Christmas, and I have always been dimly aware that there was also a time of no-Christmas. This alternation of light and dark, order and chaos, while it seemed perfectly natural, was only of background importance to me. No-Christmas happened, but I was unaware of it. And if I had thought of it at all I might have been horrified. It seems sterile, and pointless, and frankly frightening. Though before I seldom would have worried about how to spend my time, now I am anxious. I no longer know my role. It seems silly to stand here day after day all by myself. There is also a concern that a cat I have seen creeping around will take it into its head that I might be a good proxy for a mouse. Or perhaps there will be an earthquake. Or a famine. Or flood. I used to think on such disasters, which I read about in Holy Scripture, as things that would happen in a dream, and from whose effects I would be spared. After all, I am an Adorer, a special class, like one of the Seraphim. But now I don't know. Are the end times at hand?

There is worse to come, I fear. I have heard lately of something the large creatures are calling the coming of Spring. I have never experienced this, but it fills me with dread to hear them speak of it so often. Apparently their atmosphere is quite changeable. They say it will "get warm" and that the "leaves will come back" and they will be able to "do things outside." I keep my ears peeled and listen to the voices. Some of them are telling of their government and its strange doings. It is fascinating. Almost from the beginning I began to preserve my ponderings, and they have taken the form of words which have affixed themselves to paper as they fermented in my mind. It is natural to be able to do this, though I notice that the large creatures require physical labor to accomplish similar results. Now, looking back on what has been written, I see I must prepare for a great calamity. My mind has been full of nothing else. All the voices are saying the same thing. It shall come soon.

I had forgotten about Easter! What an epic discovery! I must tell everyone when I find them again. There is another sacred time much like ours! I must say I found it was a little thin on the celebratory music, and when I heard about it I prepared myself for another tableaux to form itself in my proximity filled with creatures like myself. What if I were to meet them? Is it forbidden? But alas, they have no such parallel manifestation. Still, there is food, and happiness, and all of the large creatures are taken out of themselves and feel enlarged as if the kingdom of Heaven had again come near. So the sacred orbit has a double perigee! It has taken me a month to process my adoration and to set it down here--may it uphold me in the remainder of my struggles, though I hope they are of short duration.

The earth grows ever warmer. In every respect now Christmas feels a million miles away. Our days are flooded with light. Yet somehow it doesn't feel as potent as the celestial light that filled us when our days were dark. I will ponder on this. 

From time to time the room is filled with voices which do not emanate from the large creatures themselves. At first I thought it must be celestial beings. But they do not spend their existence in the presence of such beings, it seems. At least, they are not revealed to them. Then I heard one of them refer to a mysterious thing called "radio." I do not like the things I hear from "radio." The voices therein bring sad tidings bereft of joy. I am reminded of Herod. So far from the glowing orb that bathed our stable in light I am left defenseless against the aggressive onslaught of the distracted globe and its people. It wears on my spirit. Every day their situation seems to grow worse. And yet the people bringing the news seem quite cheerful about it. What is wrong with them? Are their spirits diseased?

I have not heard O Little Town of Bethlehem in many a moon. Nor Jingle Bells. I am quite upsot. Not even Sleigh Ride, which always seemed a bit odd to me. It seems even the music has no joy in it. I miss the creche, but I also miss the smell of pine, the glowing lights, the steam from without the window, the darkness, the gift wrapping paper, the smell of cider, and punch, and good cheer.

Just now my rhapsody was interrupted by the approach of a giant cat. I have seen her many times and been afraid. Sore afraid. But mostly she has left me alone. But just then she got rather close. I don't like it. If she gets any closer I may not last until next Christmas.

Will there be a next Christmas? This year is interminable! Are we being punished? Is it like the drought in Elijah's time, that the heavens are being shut up and no yuletide cheer shall pour forth whilst we are such a sinful people? Daily the tidings that pour forth from radio and from creature's lips suggest that we are a deservedly abandoned people. And I think I know how we shall end. We shall all be boiled. It is fiendishly hot in here. I do not remember the box being this hot. My shavings are all alight.

A strange thing is happening. It is getting colder. And darker. You might imagine the people would welcome this state of affairs, yet they have a strange way of showing it. There are decorations again, but this time they all smack of death. The discarded inner shells of large creatures are on display, and the fiends of hell. It gives them a strange delight to speak of their mortality in this manner. This cannot be the gateway toward Christmas. I must have made a wrong turn in September. But how can I have known?

I recall now, with more than a bit of embarrassment, how I always felt as though I had missed something, that my time in the box was overlong, and that Christmas had been going on for quite some time and that I had overslept. But now I see what I was missing. It began when one of the large creatures began to complain, in early October, about how the store across the street was already decorated for Christmas, and how he had heard Christmas music already. Apparently the world at large is filled with the trappings of the holiday several months early. Their intention is not of the season, however, but to entice the large creatures to buy material goods in order that they may enlarge themselves. I call this Imposter Christmas. What struck me then was the wisdom of my large creatures in waiting to unseal us all until the time for preparation was at hand, and not the time merely to acquire power. Ego Christmas unfolds all around us as the earth cools, and those funny coverings on all of the trees at last are shed and the world begins to look normal again. It is the final test.

I have been for a long time suppressing my memories of the creche. There have been times when it felt so far away that I could not even recall the names of my chreche-mates. But of late their memories have returned to me. I believe the time is getting close when we will be re-united.

It occurs to me that I may have mis-remembered some of my time on set. There was, after all, the sheep who regaled us with jokes about the funny behavior of the large creatures. It was probably rather wicked of him to do that, and of us to laugh and encourage him. And the king whose beard kept falling off. Such obviously fakery seems unfitting for such an august occasion. And Mary kept forgetting her lines: at one point she said something about "baby whatsisname" and we all laughed uncontrollably for a good hour.

Perhaps we are not such a special or dignified people after all. But they are still my people. I still long to be in their company. I wonder how they will feel about being in mine. After all, I have changed. I have seen much that cannot be effaced from my memory. The other day one of the large creatures, taking notice of me again, remarked that my gaze had changed, and that I looked as if I had seen much of the world. I remember the pageant. It is Mary who is to do the pondering, not I. My role is merely to adore, comfortably, happily, undisturbedly, As if I were still in Eden, and had not known the ways of the world, and the darkness into which the little child has come, and the endless battles that will be fought over nothing but status and wealth. All of the dangers and snares, and strange customs, and anxious citizens.

Tomorrow, I just heard, will be the day. I shall not be able to sleep until then. I will greet my fellows as they come out of their box, groggy--perhaps they will not notice that I have not been among them? And if so, shall I persist in the lie? It would be easiest. And then, after the rush of joy that accompanies the start of the season, to take one's accustomed place in the scene. To simply look on in stupefied adoration.

However, I may not convince.

----- is all decorated for Christmas! Share the season with me.

Friday, November 29, 2019

That was some year

The Thanksgiving holiday seems an appropriate time to be thankful for the year that was, and since Christmas and New Year's will give me plenty to write about I'm going to do the traditional year in review now. I'm too tired to think ahead at the moment anyway!

2019 distinguished itself by the number of unique concert programs I gave--16 by my count, which does not include appearances when I played the same music (I'm guessing total stage appearances to be around two dozen) and by the number of new organs I visited. After teaching a series of lecture recitals about Beethoven in the spring, I was off to Ohio in June for some piano recitals.

If you've been on pianonoise this month you've noticed it atop the home page. It is a church near Cincinnati where I played a concert which consisted mostly of the music of Marteau.

A week later I got to play my first summer series recital near Pittsburgh. This town is rife with large organs and fine organists. Westminster Presbyterian Church is not as picturesque as some of the others, but they have a fine Austin.

There was a collection of gargoyles watching me as I arrived. I would swear there were only two of them before I looked away to open my camera!

Two week later came a concert at St. Paul Cathedral on one of the finest instruments in the country, the last instrument built by Rudolph von Bekerath.

In August I played the piano at an event in Pittsburgh which was most notable for the apparent motorcycle convention that seemed to be in town. Next time I will choose repertoire that is all loud all the time if I am playing outdoors.

In September I got to appear at Heinz Chapel for the third time, this time with my colleague Devin Arrington on the violin.

I was also asked to play a concert at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh as part of that series.

All of this took place while I was preparing a five week lecture recital course for the fall semester of Osher/UPitt, which met on five consecutive weeks in October and November. or as I started to call it, a "one person concert series."

That's a bit more work than I recommend, by the way. By the time I found out all of these concerts were happening it was too late to back out of them, but I'm going to back off a little next year. Besides, I've already been invited to play all of the organ concerts in town so I probably won't have anyplace to play next year--at least locally.

As soon as the fifth class was over I hopped in the car and drove out to Illinois for the festival concert I mentioned last week. 

I also got to play some solo pieces on that concert, most with the help of the excellent little Dobson organ. 

Today I feel justifiably tired, and am looking forward to a relatively un-busy Christmas season with just one concert. In a couple of weeks I'll be joining the choir and ensembles at First Methodist here in town for their annual Candlelight Worship concert. 

That was the year that was (or will be). It has been quite a year. Now bring on Christmas!

After a nap.

you know the drill:  This may be your last chance to hide out from the Christmas season. Only until next Friday!

Friday, November 22, 2019

Return to the Old Stomping Grounds

The following article first appeared in the November "Spire," the monthly newsletter of Third Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA:

You don’t often get a chance to go back and revisit another time of your life, see old friends, and enjoy making music with them as if stepping through a window into the past. But this past week, I was in Illinois, playing a concert with the community choir known as The Chorale, with chorus and orchestra and our guest conductor Dr. Craig Jessop.

The group formed almost accidentally in 1982 in order to sing Christmas carols at the local mall. Then they began to meet regularly and grew in size until their 70 voice ensemble was practicing every Sunday night from September through May and singing at least three concerts a year. I became their accompanist in 2009 and played for them until we left Illinois in 2016. At that time the group’s schedule included a “Celebration of Life” concert the first weekend of November, and a New Year’s Eve concert at the restored vaudeville theater. I would warm up the crowd by playing the Mighty Wurlitzer and then spend the next two hours bobbing up and down from the stage to the pit. It was a fun and exhausting evening. In the spring the final concert would feature winners of the Chorale’s college scholarships.

Every 18 months a guest would come and we would have a festival concert, usually adding around 30 singers and an orchestra. My first time at one of these I wondered how I was going to be able to get through that throng of singers to the piano! Another time I remember being able to feel the folders of the altos against the back of my head.

Dr. Jessop became our favorite clinician, and has returned to lead us about 7 times (this was number 8). He is a former conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and leads huge choir festivals around the country. The Chorale sang with him in Utah and Washington D. C. as well as going on our own international tours. I joked that with our mere 100 singers and 20 piece orchestra we were his chamber group. What is it about our group that had him coming back each time?

After 37 years, founding director Julie Beyler prepared the group for its final concert. Some of its members have already passed on, including the lady who organized the parties at the end of every semester full of food and song parodies. The group enjoyed getting together to have fun when the maestro wasn’t working them so hard that every so often a group of regular folks from small town Illinois could sound like a top-tier professional choir. It hardly seems possible, but it did come at the price of long rehearsals.

That phase of my life ended three years ago. Usually it is just in literature that a character is able to go back and visit the past, but in a couple of weeks it will be as if a switch had been thrown and a wish was granted, to see the people doing their thing one more time, a last hurrah, a fitting coda to a special time with some special people.

on the mother ship,, we're celebrating Scott Joplin's birthday and trying to be thankful for everything.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Diversity in Adversity

Life happens, to composers as it does to everyone else. Sometimes it isn't that pretty.

I didn't set out to depress everyone when I decided to teach "Composers in Exile: Music in Adversity," a five week OSHER course that included the music and life stories of a number of persons making music in difficult circumstances. Those circumstances included voluntary and involuntary exile, imprisonment, isolation, societal shunning, war, the threat of execution, mental illness, racism, sexism, and depression.

On the other hand, it would be facile to see in all of those stories of composers who went on creating their art in the midst of trying circumstances a triumph of the human spirit. Not just because some of those spirits broke down in the end but because it is easy for those not in the midst of those trials to use the suffering of others as feel-good entertainment. We like movies in which the heroes struggle as long as they win in the end. Well, some of us do. There are also those who don't even like to confront life's ugliness long enough to make it a plot point.

Given my usual propensity to inject wit into the proceedings, as well as the music's frequently cheerful tone, the class was not the funeral procession you might think if you were not in attendance. Before last week's litany of woman barred from public performance, composition, and even teaching by the attitudes of the men who controlled their decisions, I strode to the piano holding my three-ring binder filled with music aloft and proclaimed "this is my binder full of women." Several people laughed, which was a good release since the next half-hour was more likely to make them angry or depressed.

The music, though, was frequently beautiful. It has been one of the sub-themes running through the course that you cannot tell the composer's circumstances from the music they write. Sometimes the most bubbly, exuberant music will emanate from a composer in the most trying circumstances. Sometimes I have played music from before the composer ran into the difficulties described, and the music sounds if anything like a prophet of doom in the face of later events. But those who think that the composer is always keeping a sonic diary will, I hope, have had their minds changed on this. Even though no less than John Kirkpatrick suggested that very thing about the music of Scarlatti, and it certainly sounds plausible. Schumann's Carnaval also lent itself to a good deal of biographical connection. But who really knows to what degree? In any case the relation between the music and the life is individually determined, complicated, and frequently unknown.

One thing that amazed me was how many commonalities emerged from such a disparate wealth of material. I mentioned to the students in week three that they were getting a healthy musical diet, since the first week's program featured the Romantic Era (19th century), the second week the 20th century, and the third week the Baroque and Classical Eras. We heard music from France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Spain, and America. The composers were often under pressure from without, either from societal attitudes (the women) or political regimes (Stalinist Russia). But they were often under pressure from within, as well. On the question of censorship, some composers had music condemned because it did not suit the regime (like Shostakovich). Others might censor themselves because they feared their employers wouldn't like it (Haydn, for example). Still others became dissatisfied with their own style and forged a new artistic style. Whether the composer was Prokofiev, repenting after official denunciation and declaring that from now on he would pursue a simpler style, or Arvo Part deciding the complex, atonal music of his early years no longer had any meaning and pursuing so-called "Holy Minimalism," in each case, the question is about simplicity, or directness of musical expression. But complexity has its rewards, too. That same Prokofiev won a Stalin prize for his complex Seventh Piano Sonata, and I note the student's approval of much music that was loud, fast, and filled with notes.

Whether it was a composer forced to make his living by performing (and grumbling about it all the way) or a composer who really wanted to be a performer but her husband wouldn't permit it, or someone segregated to the teaching studio, or making major contributions there, the variety of ways in which these people dealt with life and earned a living is vast. It can show us, if we like to be inspired, that there is no single right way to do music. But in each case, it was the composer's failure to control a situation which was larger than themselves that led to the different solutions. They were all partial solutions; nobody quite got what they wanted. Yet they left music for us, the lucky listeners, echoes from times and spaces distant from our own experiences, full of the richness of human experience.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Don't bother your pretty little head about it

The first woman who ran the Boston Marathon was told that just wasn't possible. Women were just not capable of that kind of athletic feet. Their bodies wouldn't hold up. You know, nothing personal. We don't have a problem with it really, it's just a scientific fact.

It hadn't been proven, of course. When she actually ran the Boston Marathon a man charged onto the course and tried to physically take her out! That, she told us before a different marathon a few years back, made her "a radical."

That's the first thing to note about prejudice. First it argues what it claims are just facts, and then, not content to stand back and watch them in action, like watching women try and fail to run marathons and then say "I told you it wouldn't work" it intervenes and resorts to sabotage instead, which sounds very much like we aren't nearly so certain of what we claimed to be certain of. Also, prejudice is very polite until it is challenged, and then not so much.

Prejudice is able to think fast on its feet. At base it is an irrational gut fear. But on the surface it is full of reasoning skills. Typically, when people have been told that a particular right or something involving equal treatment is not going to be allowed, it is said to be for their own good, not detriment. You wouldn't want those rights anyway, they say. Voting is a nasty business, you should be glad you aren't a man so you don't have to be part of the dirty world of politics (and power), or You are much happier being a slave, lucky you!

Yesterday I played music written by a half dozen women from the 19th and 20th centuries. Their stories were pretty much the same. They started as child prodigies, then were married off to men they didn't love but their fathers loved the men's finances. Usually they were decades older. Then they were forced to stop that nonsense with the public music making because it was unseemly for a woman, and composing was often viewed the same way. One was even forbidden teaching because it would look like she needed to money, and of course that would make her husband look like he couldn't provide.

Before playing a piece by Fanny Mendelssohn I explained that some of her piano pieces had gotten published, but under her brother's name. Naturally Felix had a good explanation for this:

From my knowledge of Fanny I should say that she has neither inclination nor vocation for authorship. She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this. She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled. Publishing would only disturb her in these, and I cannot say that I approve of it.

Isn't that nice of him? My students didn't seem to be impressed, though. The idea that she didn't want to be recognized as the author of her own music does seem pretty high on the bullshit meter, does it not? And then to have it explained that she was much to busy being a housewife to even think about publishing, or even musical contacts.

These days there are plenty of women raising families and having careers. But you might trip over the argument that a woman in the 19th century might not have time for music and her wifely duties.

After all, she only managed to write about 460 pieces of music. But don't worry, that was never the point anyway.

if you were wondering, Felix's output consists of around 150 publications and 40 which were not published, several of which contain multiple pieces and a few of which are very large works, so without taking the time to count everything up (and being unable to find a number online) let's just say that she seems to have been just about as prolific as he was. Or if not (let's say he wrote enough opus numbers with 5 or more items to easily surpass her total) that having found time to write nearly 500 pieces of music still exposes his argument that she is too busy to soil herself with musical things to be the pile of crap that it is.
Don't forget, is new every Friday. This week there is a new article on Robert Schumann, a new recording from a concert at Trinity Cathedral, and the pianonoise radio program is all about sets of three.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Undisturbed development

In the age of clickbait, questions are posed online that run something like this:

If I offered you a million dollars but you had to swear off chocolate for the rest of your life, would you take it?

Seems like a silly question. I've never heard of anyone offering a million dollars to someone randomly if they will forswear chocolate or coffee or whatever makes it difficult.

But suppose you are a great composer and I tell you I have a really nice gig for you. It involves steady employment for life, living in a castle, employed by a prince, with your own orchestra, and you get to give a hundred concerts a year of your own music for the entertainment of a cultured monarch. Those are your only duties, beside occasional travel between castles when the prince wants to go fox hunting.

Or suppose I said you could spend your days writing harpsichord sonatas and your only duty would be to give lessons to the queen of Spain. Same living accommodations as before, and only the best harpsichords at your disposal. Would you be interested? But you can't leave. And it's not on the beaten path. Might get a bit lonely.

These are the sorts of deals that Joseph Haydn and Domenico Scarlatti seem to have made with life. They were on yesterday's program for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute course I'm offering on Composers In Exile. Only Scarlatti was in truly foreign territory: born in Italy, he worked for the Spanish court, part of that great influx of Italian musicians to nearly every court in Europe. Both of them seemed to lead isolated lives. Haydn, in particular, spent his days in a castle pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and the summer home of the prince was even more nowhere than that. He built it on a swamp, no less.

Haydn appears to have been rather lonely. He poured out his feelings in several letters, this one from February of 1790:

Well, here I sit in my wilderness; forsaken, like some poor orphan, almost without human society, melancholy, dwelling on the memory of past glorious days. Yes, past, alas! And who can tell when those happy hours may return.

Sounds rather unhappy about it, doesn't he? And the music I chose to play, although plenty jovial much of the time, does take some rather dark turns, and is just as introspective and melancholy is it is ebullient. In fact, both composers inhabit much deeper emotional worlds than they are often given credit for.

This touches on the issue of a composer's development. While most composers live in large cities, hearing and being influenced by the work of their colleagues, studying the work of their illustrious predecessors, and so on, these gentlemen seem to have been largely unable to do that. Occasionally a gifted instrumentalist might visit Eszterhaza castle, and no doubt Scarlatti got to work with some fresh blood too once in a while, but physical isolation can lead to stunted growth in other areas, too. Haydn spun this turn of events positively, however, and said that he was "forced to become original."

Scarlatti, too, was a restless experimenter who wrote 555 keyboard sonatas which follow largely the same architectural plan, and yet explore new territory each time.

Which brings to mind a quotation from the poet Maria Rainer Rilke which a teacher of mine had posted on her door at Peabody. It is from a collection called "letters to a young poet" in which the man answered a letter from an admirer asking for criticism of his poetry.

"Allow your judgments their own quiet, undisturbed development, which like all progress must come from deep within you and cannot be forced or hastened by anything. The whole thing is to carry the full time and then give birth; to let every impression and every germ of a feeling consummate itself entirely within itself, in that which is dark, inexpressible, unconscious and unattainable by your own intelligence, and to await the hour of the delivery of a new clearness of vision. That alone is to live an artistic life, in understanding, as in creating.

In that there is no measuring with time; no year is of any value and ten years are as nothing. To be an artist is this: not to count or to reckon: to ripen like a tree which does not force its sap, but in the storms of spring stands confident without being afraid that afterwards no summer may come. The summer comes all right. But it only comes to the patient, to those who are there as carefree and quiet and immense, as if eternity lay before them. Daily I learn, learn it through my sufferings [to which I am grateful] that patience is everything."

Had Haydn died at 35 as Mozart did, we probably wouldn't remember him. Scarlatti also had a long life, living to be nearly 72 (Haydn was 77). For the time those were pretty long lives. And with Scarlatti it is hard to know just how he developed because the chronology of his works is in doubt. But with Haydn you can see the music becoming richer with age, even with melancholy.

It may be difficult to imagine pain and suffering and patience being major ingredients in the furnace of art, but for these two that seems to have been of vital importance. Out of the isolation, out of the daily application and service to their art, something wonderful happened.

And we are the beneficiaries.

Scary organ music is up for a few more days at, as are more articles about Scarlatti and Haydn, and of course it's All Saints Day.