Wednesday, December 12, 2018


I could tell from the abruptness with which she stopped the choir and the expression on her face that somebody was in big trouble. I couldn't tell who or why because I was a little busy watching the score, listening to the choir, watching the conductor, and, of course, pushing all those plastic levers at the right time and with the proper degree of force. But we all stopped on a dime and waited to see who was getting the lecture.

It turned out to be three young men in the back who, while a small group of their colleagues were performing, took the opportunity to generally yuck it up, talking over and otherwise ignoring the live music at hand. This did not sit well with our conductor.

It shouldn't have. Afterwards, in conversation, I told her that she had certainly gotten the point across. And that it was completely necessary to do it. Because, sadly, there are a lot of people who have difficulty paying attention to anything they aren't involved in directly themselves. From the kindergartners who are so fascinated by the sounds coming out of their own mouths that they refuse to shut up and get in line so we can go to recess (this I recall was a recurring problem throughout elementary school and typically led to short recess periods), to the young adults who are similarly fascinated by everything they themselves think and feel and say and are sometimes blind and deaf to the world around them which, if they gave it a chance, might turn out to be more interesting than they are (O no! What will that do to my ego?!).

All this is simply a trait of human beings. But it includes musicians as well, and not just their public. Even the people making the music often seem to have little appreciation for listening to it if it is being produced by others. This suggests that there is a failure to communicate (sorry, cool hand Luke).

If I seem a little cranky today, let me channel a man by the name of Camille Saint-Saens who wrote a list of things that he said constituted people "who do not love music." One of those even included those who enjoy listening to Bach's C Major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier with the added melody by 19th century French composer Charles Gounod on top. You may not know what I'm talking about, but you've heard it at weddings. Saint-Saens thought Bach knew what he was doing and that the original should be left alone.

By comparison, I don't think it is being nearly so doctrinaire that people who love music ought to pay attention to it when it is being made, and that those who stop noticing when they aren't providing the sound themselves are not lovers of music. And, of course, like every one of us, they could stand to work on their self-absorption.

These particular young men were just going through a natural part of being human, and needed a reminder that there are bigger things out there, and that even if there weren't, there is the much needed reflex of respect to work on.

For many educators, that is probably the main issue. This is a problem of manners, nothing more. But I think breeding curiosity and desire to understand the thing itself would also help matters. It is an uphill battle to try to take people out of themselves and listen. But it enriches immensely--you and everyone you know. It is like a reverse infection, with positive symptoms. Let's hope we all catch it someday.

There is a fortune all around you. It is tax-free, but not free of effort. And, unlike those little green slips of paper with the dead people with wigs on them, it is freely available (mostly). The downside is that there is joint ownership with everyone else, and if that ruins it for you, I'm sorry. If you choose not to experience it on that basis, there isn't more for everyone else. There is just enough: plenty. And room for everybody if you ever change your mind.

I can't really explain it. You just have to be there. It's amazing. And you are constantly invited.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Goes to Motive

Seven years after the rumor of Mozart's poisoning by Salieri had consumed Vienna, the news had made its way to Russia. In 1830 Alexander Pushkin wrote a short dramatic poem about it. He did no research, and his portrait of the two composers might owe more to an imaginative interpretation of the poet's relationship with his own critics (guess which one they were?) than to anything historical, but it did supply a couple of necessary ingredients in the making of "Amadeus."

One of these is a motive. In the poem, Salieri has to inform Mozart of his own talent. Hardly the "conceited brat" of the movie, Mozart innocently runs some of his music by his older rival, who, unable to contain himself, exclaims "what depth, what profundity!" Mozart seems not to get the point. "What, is it good?" he asks. "My God, Mozart" returns Salieri. "You don't deserve yourself!" More to the point, Mozart doesn't even recognize his own genius. Salieri alone knows it ("It's I who know!").

Given that Salieri was the more successful composer, lauded by all Vienna, favored by the emperor, and with a string of box office bonanzas to his credit not just in Vienna, but in Paris and Italy as well, one might wonder what could have motivated a man like that to want to kill a less successful rival. There was, after all, enough room on the operatic stage for both of their productions (one composer couldn't write more than an opera or two in a single year, and the needs of the public were enough to keep several in business). What Pushkin does is to answer that question, and to do it well enough that what might seem like a long-shot answer is no longer even questioned by the public today. Of course he did it because he alone knew that he wasn't the greatest composer and it was killing him! The rest of Vienna might have thought he, Salieri, was the greater, but he knew the real truth, and he couldn't stand it!

I'm reminded of an essay by Mark Twain ("What is Man?") in which he makes plain that it is the desire to secure one's own approval that takes precedence over everything else; that even when rescuing another person from drowning, it is not an act of altruism stemming from the desire to keep another from harm, but because one's own scheme of values, one's own inner conscience, requires it. In the end, says Twain, we are answerable first and last to our own inner psychological needs. Thus, it didn't matter what Vienna thought, it mattered what Salieri thought. 

Since the drama that unfolds is all in Salieri's mind, there isn't any need for historical evidence to back it up. And it has the genius of transferring the drama from out in the material world of things and events and into the theater of Salieri's own conscience, and, by extension, into ours.

Because all of us, as the movie will make clear, are Salieri. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

oh......Christmas tree!

Today's guest blogger is Rosamunda Erasmus Hammer, aka Rosie Cat.

Hello humans!

I get to make the blog today, and if my human would stop shifting around while I type this I could do a lot better job. Are you finished human? Good.

(I'm sitting on his lap.)

Some of you think I am a very cute feline, but I am also a fierce jungle lion. I don't look dangerous because I am small. If my last humans had fed me enough I would be really big and you would run away so I didn't eat you. But you would not be able to get away from me. Yum. I love to bite things. I bite all the things.

Christmas is my favorite time of the year. There are so many things to play with. I love the thought of the wrapping paper and the ribbons and the strings ooh and the boxes you humans put everything in. I shred the boxes with my sharp teeth. I can't wait until they put up the Nativity scene. I like to be King Herod and attack all the people. That's not in your version of the story but it is in mine. I'm fierce. I like to scratch things with my claws. I have great claws. They are better than Santa's claws. I've heard about them. They are not that great. He is big and moves slow. I could take him.

But the best part is having a tree in the house. Don't tell my humans. I will wait for them to sleep and then I will go to town on all the pretty little things hanging from the tree. I have to work out, you know? Keep up my fizeek.

I can't wait for Christmas this year. It will be so awesome. Just thinking about all the boxes makes me want to go attack something. Bye!
now it is later and I just saw a vidaoh where the humans put the tree inside a cage so the cats couldn't get it. That is not funny. Don't do that, humans.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Old Habits

A colleague and I were discussing what can happen when you go back to a piece you learned some time ago. If the acquisition of the piece happened when you were still gaining technical skill, you may find yourself having some of the same old problems that you had the first time you learned the piece. I recalled a piano concerto I had worked on during my freshman year at the conservatory. Having grown up in a small town and then entered the conservatory deficient in formal training, I made a lot of progress, particularly during my sophomore year. When I returned to the piece after a period of a year in order to play it for a competition I had a nasty surprise waiting for me. "Oh no!" I exclaimed. "My wrists were like bricks!"

In the meantime I had learned a much more fluid way to treat my entire playing mechanism. And that endured so long as I was playing anything for the first time. But returning to an old piece before the improvement was like opening a time capsule. My body reverted to all sorts of old habits.

This is presumably why musicians sometimes express regret at learning pieces of music too soon. It isn't impossible, in my experience, to unlearn all of those old habits, to update one's approach to an old piece, but it does take a lot of conscientious work.

This is also one of the many helpful things about having a good teacher. Besides teaching you technique in the first place, they are able not simply to curb the enthusiasm of young people who want to learn the most challenging pieces before they are able to play them, they can suggest synonyms--pieces that have some of the same challenges and hopefully the same attraction, and that will prepare the student to play the piece they (and every other young charge on the planet) want to play.

There is hope in the process. Any great piece of music is worth visiting time and again, putting away, returning to, playing it in recital and for friends, putting away again, returning to it years later. Over time we should have refined our approach, learned new things about interpretation and how to use our bodies most effectively for the musical presentation. As an organist I am more aware of this process than as a pianist, for my organistic journey is newer. Nonetheless, I am sharing the piece below, one of the fun pieces in the organ literature, which I first learned a year and a half ago, and recording about six months ago. I play it better now. I played it better a week or so after the recording! But it's not a bad start on a somewhat challenging piece, and having already played it in concert once and to conclude a couple of church services and for a lecture recital, I look forward to many more occasions to journey through time with this exciting piece of music. Enjoy!

Vierne, Louis. Final from Symphonie no. 1

Monday, December 3, 2018

Well that explains it!

It started with a rumor. Rumors tell us why, and give an event purpose. They also comport with what we think we know about the way things work.

  “Mozart is dead,” a Berlin newspaper wrote in December of 1791, less than a month after his death….”Because his body swelled up after death, some people think he was poisoned.”
Although his doctors later went on the record saying his symptoms matched the same disease that carried off any number of his fellow Viennese that same winter, Mozart couldn’t just die that way. After all, he was young, and a genius. You can’t just die of some random disease when you are a young genius, right?

Nobody seems to have been saying who did the poisoning at this point. At least, we have no written accusations. In fact, if there was any poisoning, one of the hundreds of theories about Mozart’s death suggests that he may have been doing it himself, taking frequent doses of medicine that, not uncommon to the 18th century, had some ingredients in it that were harmful, like mercury, for instance.

It wasn’t until 1823 that a suspect was connected with the crime, and this bit is rather sensational. Antonio Salieri, a ripe old 73 years old, and probably in only partial custody of his wits, tried to kill himself. This much is history. And the rumor that swirled around Vienna afterwards was that he had confessed to the crime of killing Mozart.

People who were with him tried to undo the damage, claiming, in a signed newspaper article, that they had been with Salieri the entire time, and that he never said any such thing. And there is the story that on Salieri’s deathbed he dismissed the whole thing as nonsense.

But it was an attractive rumor. Even Beethoven’s friends were talking about it. We know because in the conversation books of the then completely deaf composer are the written queries and responses of those friends, and these seem quite certain that Salieri is guilty of the crime. Since Beethoven could speak, we do not have records of his answers.

The rumor persisted. It was, after all, very useful. It explained why Mozart had not made more of an impact earlier in the musical world. Musicologists of the succeeding century, often a combative bunch, liked to take out their ire for the non-recognition of Mozart’s genius on the fickle Viennese public, giving themselves the sacred duty of righting a great wrong, and giving the great man a reputation and a career supposedly denied him in life.

The people, on the other hand, the same ones who in many cases had made some of this operas and instrumental pieces the 18th century equivalent of smash hits, or at least minor hits, needed a reason that all of this came to such a premature end.

Every story needs a good villain.

Salieri was a foreigner. His music was going out of style.  And his last name even begins with an S.
I mean, what else could you possibly need?