Monday, March 23, 2015

This is how little girls got to play soldiers in the nineteenth century

I started programming my upcoming piano recital with a serious question in mind: what are the merits of "program" music, and how does a composer draw inspiration from something besides the interplay of notes and phrases? But things shortly began to veer off into the ridiculous.

That, obviously, is one risk of trying to make music tell a story; it is like unto concretizing metaphors, double entendres, bad puns, and all manner of linguistic tricks that start to wear thin after a while because the focus is on the language itself and not on what it is trying to point to beneath its dazzling surface.

And if Erik Satie's little escapade didn't warn you of that (though Satie was clever enough to recognize it), let's dive into a little Kotzwara.

I wrote about him nearly ten years ago, shortly after moving to Champaign-Urbana. An item in the news stirred him from his deserved slumber. Some folks were upset that a cellphone ringtone was topping the charts in England, and I wrote an article that suggested that this was hardly a new low in the annals of public taste. What I dredged up to support my argument was a piece of piano music called "The Battle of Prague," published in 1790, which went on to become a huge bestseller for half a century, and even got mentioned by name in two of Mark Twain's books, so embedded in the culture it was.

Kotzwara's battle piece was an early entry into a genre that was to glut the market for years after--the idea that the noise and glory of a great an messy enterprise could be represented by one only moderately talented player was an idea that sold a lot of music. Trumpet calls, canons, guns, were easy to imitate on a piano. Canons, particularly, didn't take a lot of practice. Mr. Kotzwara's piece turned out to be disappointingly polite: many of the other entrants into this kind of piece wrote loud, low clusters for the flat of the hands, the kind of thing that two-year olds naturally produce once they can reach the keyboard.

Then there was the fog of war. I have a book entitled "Men, Women, and Pianos" by Arthur Loesser, in which one section is devoted to a description of this literature. It is very entertaining. In referring to such effects, produced mainly by random notes with the sustaining pedal to the floor, Mr. Loesser reminds us that "a good deal of young lady battle fog was probably quite unintentional."

What makes the piece really ridiculous, besides the trite musical material itself, is that everything is supposed to represent some aspect of the battle, and is captioned accordingly in the score. When I play this in recital I'm thinking of having persons hold up signs, maybe two at a time, pointing to each hand, as indeed, sometimes the left hand represents galloping horses while the right hand is busy being people hacking each other with swords.

The real Battle of Prague was, of course, no laughing matter. And what it had to do with the English piano music buying public I have no idea. But they loved it. And as silly as it is I intend to have a good time playing it in recital in a few weeks.

here it is:
The Battle of Prague  by Francisek Kotzwara

No comments:

Post a Comment

I don't bite...mostly.