Friday, June 14, 2019

Cue the fiddle music

My dearest reader,

It has been nearly four days since a most unfortuitous calamity has sent me careening into the 19th century. The power cord on my computer has become irrevocably damaged and to such a grave extent that I fear for the continued necessary usage of my computer. I have had to subsist on all manner of borrowed electronic contrivances. Only my phone has stood by me during this time of severe trial. I hope, God willing, to regain the use of my computer if by the next post should come the new power cord which I have ordered sent to my current address. It will only be then that my regular mode of life shall be restored. Until then I shall be an unwilling denizen of times past when our race must needs have foraged for survival in an unkind environment.

I am in a pitiable state. The normal mode of commerce with my species having been disrupted, I have been forced to have intercourse only with my own thoughts, and they are black indeed. Whither shall I wander in this un-digital world? In what manner can I profitably spend my time if not in front of a computer? What little talents I may possess can surely be of little use without the approved electronic medium to disseminate them among my brethren.

Once assured that my computer was not at fault, I turned my attentions to procuring a new cord for it, the old one having been mercilessly ripped apart by my thoughtlessly dangling the adapter box from the port side of the piano whilst composing. Heedlessly I have acted, but I shall not repeat my misdeed. A new power strip will relieve its successor of gravity's rapacious grip rather than twisting the plug into the shape that circumstance has forced it into, thereto.

Whenceforth I shall continue in weeks to come to protract my opinions in this space, newly returned to the century of the 21st. Entertaining the fondest hopes for the speedy remedy of this malady, I am, ever your blogger,

Michael

Friday, June 7, 2019

Miss Olga

Miss Olga retired last week.

Her name is Olga Radosavljevich, and she taught piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Preparatory Division, for 59 years. She didn't think students would be able to pronounce Radosavljevich, so she went by Miss Olga.

I had to look up how to spell it, but I had no problem pronouncing it. In fact, I just tried saying it five times fast. It's been awhile, and I only got through it four times before stumbling on the last one.

Miss Olga was the head of the Prep Department, which is where you went for lessons before being enrolled at the Conservatory. When I was 16, I took lessons in the Prep department, though Miss Olga was not my teacher. In fact, I think, due to my sloppy technical skills, she didn't want me as a student. A year later, at the end of year exam, she wrote "EXCELLENT!" in big letters across the top of the page. "When he first came it was obvious he lacked formal training but he has made an ENORMOUS improvement since" was her enthusiastic assessment. It remains one of my most glowing reviews.

I had studied with an elementary music teacher in our little town for several years. I owe her a lot, too, but it eventually became clear that, to borrow her own words, she was "not suitable for [my] purposes."

In the two years I had in the prep department I studied with a conservatory graduate student and made huge strides. Miss Olga was there to make sure of it.

Of course, Miss Olga's 59 year career only came to a peaceful and magnificent conclusion last week because my grandmother didn't kill her thirty years ago.

Miss Olga gave a master class in which several dozen of us played Czerny exercises for her one long Sunday afternoon. I was apparently the most advanced (I was probably a high school senior at this point) and was held for the end. The first students got a lot of instruction, and as the class dragged on past the four hour mark and the relieved parents left with their charges one by one as they finished taking their public lesson, only I and my family were left. Miss Olga looked at her watch wearily and said that maybe it was time to stop. My grandmother, according to my mother, looked like she wanted to kill Miss Olga.

We stopped grandma in time, and I got to play for her anyway. She was encouraging.

I have a recording of the 90 second etude I played on that occasion. I made the recording a few years ago one afternoon. I imagine it has improved a little since 1989, though I barely practiced it before I turned on the microphones!

Here's to you, Miss Olga. You have a lot of thankful students.

Czerny, Etude in Bb, op. 299 #13

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Friday, May 31, 2019

Organ Crawl


The following article is appearing in the Third Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh's newsletter, "The Spire" this weekend.

It may not seem like news that organists tend to be nerds, but what you may not be aware of is what associative nerds we are. The Pittsburgh chapter of the American Guild of Organists is 300 members strong and very active. Each month we gather to fellowship, eat, support each other, and of course gawk at various organs. This past month we had an “organ crawl” in which three of the guild’s chapters came together to spend the day in Greensburg traveling to six churches and hearing recitals on each of the organs. We rented a school bus to get to the venues, and there was much merriment on that score. Some of the members commented that they hadn’t been on a school bus in a very long time. I assured the bus driver that I didn’t have gum. At the end of the trip the driver complimented us on our good behavior! Organists have been known to get rowdy, you know.

The trip was very well thought out, with a large souvenir program, several fine organists to play for us, and a variety of programs at the varied places of worship which included a college chapel, and Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. Two of the programs were short worship services, and it was at the last of the evening, at the Presbyterian church, that I will always remember the sound of all of those organists singing the hymns. It may have been helped by the acoustic, but organists can really sing!

The college chaplain used his short homily to be thankful for the role that music plays in worship and thank the organists. Although there are Guild chapters all over the country, I think ours is unique for size and activity, and I am thankful for this group that is unique to Pittsburgh.



Friday, May 24, 2019

Rosamunda's Anniversary

Rosamunda is a year older.

We have no idea when our fine feline friend was born, but we do know that we adopted her on May 22nd, 2018, so we celebrate that as adoption day. That is her special day.

You would like to know how she spent it? Lounging in a chair in the sun, taking occasional tongue-baths, hunting for all things to play with, chasing her toys when we threw them, and in the evening there was a brief and exciting encounter with a fly which nonetheless eluded her. Perhaps it will furnish a protein snack on another day.

Her predecessor often got a ceremonial saucer of milk which he either drank or did not drink. If he drank it we had six more weeks of summer. Or maybe it was the other way around. His "birthday" was in July so it was a pretty safe bet either way.

In the year in which she has been with us Rosamunda (who started out as "Rosie" at the shelter, and then I started dishing out the fancy derivatives and one of them stuck) had undergone a dramatic change. She was four pounds under weight and missing half of her fur. Here is her before picture:

It took her about two weeks to stop hiding behind boxes in the basement and wander the house freely. But even in the early days she was a snugglepuss. The first day we met, I put my hand in the cage and when it touched her fur she began to pur loudly. Then they got her out and set her on my lap. She stayed on it, purring away. It was pretty clear this was our cat.

Now she's gotten pretty comfortable with the routine. It is true that she ate herself back to full weight and then some and we had to put her on a bit of diet. For some reason she doesn't bother knocking glasses off of counters or eating houseplants, two of her brother's obsessions. And she'll sleep with us whenever we let her (which is not on "school nights" because she wakes Kristen up jumping back on the bed after her snack break at 4 in the morning) and follows us from room to room to be with her people.

These pictures are from the other day.


I could of course bore you with many more (and certainly will) but you are no doubt gushing copious amounts of tears at how cute our feline is sleeping and I think it is only merciful to let you off the hook for now.

Rosie had some tough shoes to sniff but she is doing her best, which is really terrific. And her humans love her.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Concert at St. Paul's Cathedral

My fingers are tired.

This does not happen often, though I am asked about it so frequently that when I posted a question and answer page on my website several years ago the first question I responded to was exactly that. The page is called "Aren't your fingers tired? A friendly question and answer page for the curious."

Usually the answer is no, because I practice several hours a day, and when people wonder after a one hour concert if my fingers are tired I explain to them that one hour is not very long for me to exercise my digits on an average day. But yesterday I did quite a bit of practice. In the morning I remember a period when, sitting at the organ, I was pushing my fingers pretty hard into the keys. From a musical standpoint there is no reason at all to do this, but it felt right to be confidently releasing my fingers into the keys as I sought to connect the muscle moves with my brain while assimilating the music. It seemed to fuse the connections, make the music mine. I had a piano teacher who suggested I should practice forte while learning.

Still, fingers are muscles, and you have to give them a rest sometimes. I would be doing that now, but unfortunately, typing a blog also takes finger activity. I am not wealthy enough to be able to afford additional sets of fingers I can dedicate to one activity or the other. It would be convenient, though.

So I'll keep this one short, and simply announce the reason for my excessive dedication. I have several concerts this summer, two of which are at the organ and in the Pittsburgh area. One of them is at St. Paul's Cathedral on July 14 at 3:30 p.m. Being a relative latecomer to the organ means that despite playing all the most difficult literature and having given several organ concerts in recent years, I have never given an organ recital in a bona-fide cathedral. It's exciting. It is a great place to play, and a great instrument. I've been to several concerts there before and now I get to give one. Yesterday I finally figured out what I'm going to play on the entire program. For weeks I had the beginning and the end and wasn't sure what to do with the middle.


It will consist of several short pieces. Recently I played a program of a few long pieces and I've decided to go back the other way. These are mostly 5 minutes each. They come from Germany, Italy, Spain, Lithuania and France. There are four centuries represented. Some of them are very loud, others on one or two stops only. The organ (this one particularly) has quite a few coloristic possibilities, and I will be trying to exploit nearly all of them! I think it is a program that will be very friendly to people who are not sure they like organ recitals. And it's free. So bring your friends: the cathedral seats about a gazillion people. I'll be up in the balcony; I'll try to wave occasionally.


Friday, May 10, 2019

I'm Bored!

Not being a mother, I don't have access to the official book of things to say to your children in every situation,  and thus I don't know what page it is on. But I'm sure it's in there somewhere. When your child complains that they are bored, you say "no, you are boring."

They may have updated the book since, because that seems a little unnecessarily cruel for this enlightened era, but it may have some redemptive sting in it after all. Being unable to either provide your own external stimulus or (gasp) even being able to find sufficient stimulus in the workings of your own mind is a skill, and it ought to be cultivated; otherwise, you risk being bored a lot.

At least, you used to. These days there are screens everywhere and access to thousands of entertainment options. It would seem that the likelihood of being bored has gone down. But then, the tolerance for being able to deal with even a short period of non-entertainment has gone down with it, so there is still a grave risk that at some point a young mind may not know what to do with itself.

I was a child before the days of the internet and even the IPOD was a new and expensive commodity so when I was out mowing the yard I would "listen" to records in my head sometimes for entertainment, or imagine baseball games, making up what happened. Now when I vacuum I plug my phone into my headphones and listen to things streamed online. But when I run I don't plug anything into anything. It is just me and my environment for two or three hours, no headphones, no music. I simply enjoy the trees, the birds, and try not to run over the chipmunks darting in front of me. Once I nearly hit the trifecta of (almost) managing to run over a squirrel in a car, on a bicycle, and on foot in the same day.

I tried music a couple of times; everybody else was doing it. But then I gave it up and let my mind provide its own inner dialogue, or none at all. It was a little bland at first. But I thought it was a good way to cultivate boredom.

--Wait, back up. Cultivate boredom?--

Interesting things happen when you actually create the conditions to be bored. One thing is that you learn to deal with it. Things don't have to happen all of the time. Sometimes just sitting in a chair can be pleasant. And the mind can find things to think about; what is harder is disciplining those things so they are worth the rumination.

There have been musicians who have dealt with this phenomenon quite a lot. Erik Satie comes immediately to mind. So does Phillip Glass. Trying to be intentionally bored can seem like a fool's errand, but if you want mental serenity, learning to de-clutter the mind can actually be a spiritual discipline. Here's Jeremy Begbie: "Music can teach us a kind of patience which stretches and enlarges, deepens us in the very waiting."

Once you've managed to allow periods of non-stimulus, a blank mental slate; to throw out whatever thoughts "do not bring joy," you can decide purposefully what you want to be in there. We go from mental wandering to intentional, structured thinking. It has rewards that many cannot fathom, but it is worth the struggle.

Why am I bring this up today? Because I had a question this week from someone who would like some tips for how to learn music faster. I get questions like this a lot. And, given that practice efficiency is something that interests me, I decided to devote a web page to it. It will be up sometime next week.

The writer's primary motivation for gaining speed, however, does not seem to have been that life is short and there is a lot of music out there waiting to be learned; it was to avoid boredom. Playing the pieces over and over, which seems to be the accepted way to gain fluency, was getting tedious. Is there a way to learn the music fast enough not to have to deal with this?

In the past, my answers to that question, some of which are on this page, have been some variation on the idea that boredom is necessary to competence; that if you aren't bored by your piece yet, you don't know the piece well enough, and that, frankly, getting faster at learning only means you will learn to get bored faster. But there is a way to avoid the negative aspects of boredom. If you are practicing in a way that is completely focused on the music, every moment, every detail, rather than a cursory put-in-the-time manner which worries about playing everything 10 times but does not take any particularl pleasure in a well-articulated C, or a well calibrated dynamic shift; which does not notice the difference between a small hesitation between two chords and gets no delight from being able, on the next pass, of closing the gap, or getting a better sound through more focused voicing--if you think that every time you play a passage it sounds the same, and you only liked the piece when it was new because your ears can't hear the difference between a passage with all of the notes correct and on time, and several that aren't, then you know what?

You are Boring!

Most of the world's amateur pianists will probably stay that way, too, which is my attempt at realism, not mean-ness. But for those who want to try, with pain and struggle, to go beyond that, a vast world will open up. I know this because I inhabit this world daily. It took a long time to gain citizenship. But I am rarely bored, even when the piece is far from novel.

I will even submit, at the risk of seeming like a complete nerd, that I find thinking about and writing about practicing interesting. And so I will make another attempt at helping someone else deal with the scourge of boredom and lead them to practice Valhalla.

I mean, it's worth a try.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Up jumps the baritone

It's one thing when you're bored. Tired of the same old, easily distracted, ready to move on to something else without having adequately explored the bountiful terrain you have at hand.

It is something else entirely when you are trying to take the next step, the next great step in an epic journey, to go beyond what you've known, what your people have known, to transcend the old limitations and to obey the voice that beckons to the beyond, the unknown, with all of its promise and risk, and unexplainable unfathomable richness.

Beethoven used a baritone to tell us. Up he jumps, 7 minutes into the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, and sings, "Friends! No more of these tones..."

Those tones had cost Beethoven about a decade of labor. They take nearly an hour even to listen to at performance speed. They are full of drama and intensity, and they don't let up even for a moment. They explore, in great detail, every interval, every melodic fragment, every rhythmic surprise that Beethoven has on his symphonic pallet. In between the storms and the stress they keep returning to variations on a melody that hasn't come into being yet, with the promise of the sun breaking through the clouds only for an instant before the dark returns.

And then, without explaining himself, Beethoven begins the finale with an explosive chord that puts the key of the third movement against the key of the rest--Bb and d minor, simultaneously, and when the dust settles, the celli begin their long recitative, preparing the way for the tenor to come. And they do something else.

Each of the first three movements appears for a moment in snatches, and is rejected by the celli, apparently remembering their taming by the piano in the fourth piano concerto and back for another round, saying, "no, not this one." "No, not this one either." Every possible answer that has been put forth to this point is not the right one. For more than an hour we've been searching for the right way to live, and it has eluded us. For it's more than a symphony.

Nobody had ever included voices in a symphony, and trying to make that work; to suddenly, after an hour of just instruments, to bring in a choir, and soloists, without making the piece break in two, and seem disjointed, was a problem that vexed Beethoven for a long time. Until, he had a breakthrough and decided he had the answer.

"Friends, no more of these tones! Let us sing more joyful sounds!"

It is Schiller's Ode to Joy, in which even the earthworms get to share in the happiness, in which there is at last a universal answer to a composer's personal restlessness, which provides the climax.

But along the way, the symphonist has been preparing us carefully, relentlessly, each moment and in every detail, so that when that moment comes it has been there waiting all along. It is both inevitable and a surprise, a thing that had to come into being except that we didn't recognize it until it was upon us. The great hope, springing on us suddenly, in an instant, and longed for forever.

It is a shame that most people only know the Ode, the thing ripped from its universe like an answer that no longer seems to be an answer to anything. If you have the patience for it, the Ninth unfolds with a stunning narrative, gripping in its need, thrilling beyond measure in its fulfillment. All you need is ears to hear.

Which can take a lifetime.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Beethoven the expressive

At the final Beethoven lecture on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony I pointed to what I felt was a rather odd little one-note trumpet dotted figure sandwiched between phrases near the opening of the first movement. It seemed to recall the music of an earlier generation, the public musical flourishes of Mozart in many of his symphonies or piano concerti. It was a tiny detail, easy to ignore, a simple musical glue amidst what could have been construed as the more interesting string figure, the theme of the third movement in embryo. But I spent a few moments fixating on the passing trumpet comment instead.

At the end of the same movement is a ghostly chromatic figure over which the woodwinds trill in the style of a funeral march. It also seems to come out of nowhere, a strangely powerful moment that has not been set up by any of the preceding material.

What both of these moments have in common is that they don't seem to be connected to the musical fabric. Beethoven, the master of motivic transformation and large-scale connection, seems to have gone outside the logic of theme and pattern and embraced pre-made musical elements, fragments that would suggest ideas, moods, occasions, because of their ubiquitous use in Viennese musical life, and not because he had defined them via his own symphonic context.

Beethoven's willingness to do that should jolt us out of any cliched view of the master as one who simply worked within his own musical ambit, fashioning meaning from a manipulation of very economically distributed blocks. It might also tell us, that at least in this symphony, he felt the need to push outward into the realm of the program, the philosophy, the idea, to stretch his compositional methods to the breaking point because what he wanted to say was vitally important and he needed every compositional resource available.

That he embedded these arresting glimpses of a symphonic beyond amidst logically connected motivic elements on a huge scale is an incredible testament to his variety of approach. This is the composer who is known for working in small musical segments but who could, on occasion, write a beautiful, long-breathed melody. Transitions can be condensed to the point of nothing, or spray the unwary listener with gallons of supercilious notes. Tension can build to a mighty climax, or the ending can simply evaporate in a puff of humor.

The Ninth Symphony is overwhelming. The first two movements are staggering, over half and hour of loud and dramatic, unrelieved by a slow movement of such beauty and intensity that the listener is close to exhaustion before the final movement, the architectural omega, with its celebrated Ode to Joy, even begins.

Beethoven had a lot to say. It took him 12 years to say it.

I've been thinking about Douglas Adams's quote that the music of Beethoven "show us what it is like to be Beethoven." I think he's right. And very wrong. This music shows us far more.

If I had five more lectures I still wouldn't be able to unpack that idea. Gustav Mahler, one of Beethoven's symphonic heirs, said that a symphony "is like the world. It should embrace everything."

He owes that idea to Beethoven, who started composers on that path. The result is to stretch expression to the breaking point, filling it with contradiction after contradiction, each new method overthrowing the old, while shedding light on everything that came before and everything that is to come after. Take that too far and we are on the cusp of meaning nothing at all.

A small composer expresses him or herself, and that only. Adams thought that rather than Beethoven it was Bach who "shows us what it is like to be the universe." Which is apt in that Bach lived in the age before artistic self-expression was even a current in the ocean of ideas, though inapt if you consider the universe to be cold and lifeless and enormously beyond expressiveness. It was Adams's admiration for Bach which kept him from seeing something else about Beethoven, something which does not negate his power to reveal himself any more than a stained glass window shows us its beauty by blocking the rays of the sun.

Beethoven shows us what it is like to be alive.
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Friday, April 19, 2019

Beethoven and Us

I asked students in my class to share some of their stories related to Beethoven. After focusing on Beethoven's music for four and a half weeks, I wanted to provide a window for our personal encounters with the music and the man, whether positive or negative. Here are a few snippets:

"When my sister and I were about 8 and 10, we started taking piano lessons.  Our parents, who had had no musical education themselves, were determined that their children would get the musical education they hadn’t had themselves.  In fact, my mother decided to take piano lessons as well.  I remember one year, night after night, trying to go to sleep as Mom practiced “Fur Elise” downstairs - painstakingly going over passages again and again and again.  By the end of that year, I swore I’d never listen to that blasted piece again."

So, no "Fur Elise" in class. Got it. Actually there were a few of you who wrote that they couldn't stand that piece anymore. 

But not everybody.


"My parents before me enjoyed Beethoven's music and I must have heard it growing up. I started piano lessons at the age of 8, and was playing Für Elise when I was about 12. I thought I played it reasonably well and was quite pleased I could play it without notes for my recital. That was a very positive first encounter with, and owning of, a Beethoven piece."

See, some folks have a nice time with that piece. 

I expected a few Beethoven encounters to be rocky, however. Here is a very well written insight into just one such difficulty. The subject line was "Beethoven without Fear."

"Around the mid-1970s, grocery stores would sometimes offer merchandise specials to woo customers.  Usually it was cookware, like a nonstick skillet, or necessities like dish towels, but sometimes the specials veered away from the kitchen, like Volume 1 of an encyclopedia at a low introductory price.  And on one occasion, it was records – the 33 1/3 LPs that were the still the leading technology of the time (just before cassette tapes). And the very first one offered for sale was Beethoven's 6th Symphony, for something like $1.99.


Although I was very budget-minded young mother at the time, this went into the shopping cart, but not without some trepidation. Beethoven scared me.  I had been a fan of Bach (the first classical album I ever bought) and Mozart (I played Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for our kids at night, as my mother had done for me). But Beethoven always seemed intimidating. He was a giant, yet to me he seemed too loud, too long and overwrought. What little I did know— his greatest hits (the 5th, Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata) –  were so overplayed as to seem either overbearing or tedious.

I knew I had to be missing something. So I bought the album, took it home and played it, and it was lovely. The kids calmed down and even my husband -- strictly a jazz devotee -- enjoyed it. I played it again, and again, and again. We still love it."

I'll come back to that letter later. In the meantime, here is a story of consistent effort:


"So when I was around 15 years old, a good friend and me decided we wanted to learn all the Beethoven symphonies. We didn’t have a classical radio station in the city, and my home only had Chopin Waltzes, Swan Lake, and Bolero, all chosen by my mother when we joined the Columbia record club. I had a boxy record player. There was a place in downtown Montreal called The Record Store, and every week we would take the bus down there to rent a symphony. We started with the first symphony and in 9 weeks had heard them all!  It cost $1.00 a record to rent."

I remember hours spent in music libraries listening to things I wanted to be able to hear all of. In college I actually worked my way through the Haydn symphonies. All 104. It took a couple of years, though.

I wanted to talk about our personal encounters with the music because some time during my preparation of some of the piano sonatas (by the way, I played at least one movement from 8 of the 32 sonatas during the course of the class) I realized that I could remember when and where I had first learned many of them, and sometimes even had fond memories of my initial exposure to the music. 

In high school I purchased a CD which contained Vladimir Ashkenazy's interpretations of three Beethoven Sonatas: The Moonlight, Appassionata, and Pathetique. I played all of them in class (but only the first movement of the Appassionata). I remember wishing to play the Appassionata, but not having the music. I grew up in a small town without a classical music store, and I had no idea where to get a copy of the sonatas. So I went about it another way: I listened to the piece again and again, and learned to play the entire sonata by ear. Some time later, at a summer music camp on a university campus, I stopped in at their library to see the actual score. The page was thick with notes. I remember thinking, man, this piece is hard! Good thing I didn't know that at the time!

This was a story I did not share in class because we were pressed for time. I'm glad so many of you shared your stories. I still have a few more things to say about Beethoven, so although the class is over, I'll keep blogging about him for another week. Stay tuned, and thanks!
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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

In the middle of the night...I go writing about Beethoven in my sleep

I am writing this blog at 4 a.m. I've been awakened by our cat, not by the usual method of jumping on our bed (which mainly disturbs my wife and is why Rosamunda is only permitted to sleep with us on weekends*), but because the overnight low is not as low anymore and her furry warmth was a little too pronounced. Did I mention she likes to sleep on top of my legs? I know how Snoopy's doghouse must feel.

Being awake, my mind decided to go to work, thinking about Beethoven. It's been doing that a lot these days. Tomorrow we'll wrap up a series of five lectures about the Bard of Bonn. I called them all "Beethoven the Revolutionary" and the class focused on four different aspects of Beethoven's musical personality, with the Ninth Symphony thrown in for good measure, and a chance to share our own Beethoven stories (that's tomorrow).

As I've been immersed in Beethoven for several months now, I can't help incorporating some of his methodology. Beethoven likes to connect ideas like few mortals ever have, particularly over a large area. A thematic idea from the beginning will show up at the end. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony begins and ends with the same interval. 75 minutes later he is still thinking of that downward fifth.

So it is appropriate to begin and end the journey the same way, in the middle of the night, when I can't sleep, writing about Beethoven.

It was sometime around 2 a.m. on an early fall night that I awoke, hot, and, not being able to sleep, at first lay in bed vainly trying. But in my mind I began to hear myself giving a lecture on Beethoven. This turned out to be useful.

It was useful because I was about to teach a class on the movie "Amadeus," which I had wanted to do for quite some time, and which seemed like a great idea for a class. The problem with having a great idea is not the idea itself but having a sequel. I had already gotten a course on the organ out of my system. Whither next? Not to mention that there was a deadline approaching for proposing a course (the deadline for the spring semester comes even before you've begun to teach in the fall) and I hate not knowing where I'm going to go next.

Then the tenor jumped up and said "friends, away with this uncertainty..."

As Mental Me began to go on and on about the music of a composer I could talk about for hours, I realized I'd kick myself if I fell back asleep and forgot what I was creating. So I got up and wrote on a sheet of paper an outline for a five week course, what topics I would cover each week, what music I would play, major ideas to be incorporated into a series of forays into the music and the ways Beethoven's compositional obsessions could be approached. Then, two hours later, I fell asleep. And months later, when it was time to put it into practice, I did what Beethoven did. I changed my mind about a lot of it.

Through January and February I mainlined a lot of Beethoven. Sonatas I hadn't played in years. About seven sonatas in all. Some of them didn't make the cut. Some of the more overplayed did, but I hope I used them in creative ways so they didn't seem stale. I tried to approach each one differently, to get at a different aspect of Beethoven's musical mind, as well as to shed light on the compositional process itself. Then there were recordings of the symphonies. We listened to sections large and small. we talked about recurring themes, Beethoven's love of jerking his audience around and making them wait for things, sometimes the whole thing revolved around a single note. I improvised, and played in two keys at once, talked about musical punctuation, and made jokes about chickens. Beethoven's bust never smiled (it was Mozart anyway).

Tomorrow it ends, at least for this incarnation. Before I go I want to thank my class. I'm grateful to them for sharing the experience. Besides sharing wonderful Beethoven stories and asking good questions, they've been a really attentive, listening audience. When I start to play a sonata you can hear a pin drop. This includes the space between movements, but is particularly noticeable during all of the dramatic silences that Beethoven loves to write. The other day one of my colleagues complained about audience behavior. I have no complaints. It is infinitely rewarding to let Beethoven paint his tonal mysteries on a bed of complete silence. Nobody even hacked up a lung during one of the slow movements (take that, Heinz Hall!) All this was evident within the first thirty seconds of the first class when I made the choice-- in a class whose focus was the music itself-- to begin with the music itself. For the first time I opened a class without introducing myself. I simply walked onto the proscenium, sat down at the piano, and started with the rolled chord from the opening of the Tempest sonata. I didn't say as much as hello until I'd played the entire first movement. There had been the usual pre-class chatting, of course, but within five seconds of the first note from the piano, all competing noise had ceased. They hadn't particularly noticed when I ascended the stairs to the piano and sat down quietly, but the instant they heard musical sound they took it as if someone was speaking to them and they wanted to hear what he had to say. I wish more people understood this to be true, rather than assuming that anybody who isn't singing is just there to perfume the air while they continue to be impressed by their own observations about the weather.

The Beethoven stories I'll share with you on Friday. I expected there to be a certain amount of remembered unhappiness with a man who set really high standards and made it hard to follow, wrapped up in fraught issues like childhood piano lessons and trips to hear men in tuxedos demanding quiet and doing weird things like stabbing the air with batons and blowing and plucking things that never really got explained but they sure seemed unfriendly. There was that, of course, and a healthy amount of overcoming, just like our hero.

I was reminded by a colleague that 2020 is going to be a big year for Beethoven. It will be his 250th birth year. I trust we'll all be ready for the Beethovenian onslaught. I'll be teaching about something else by then, but I hope these talks and the performances of the music will help us go into the year with a real passion for and understanding of the music. I called these lectures 'interactive program notes' and I hope they plant seeds that grow with each listening to all of the great music that has been left us by our gifted fellow humans.

Soon it will be time to get on with other things. But will we soon forget our sojourn with brother Beethoven?

Not I.

----
*this was written Saturday "morning."
**I have no idea why the title is a reference to a Billy Joel song. My mind thought it up.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Out of the symphonic ooze

There are different ways to approach the learning process, and ways to make pieces of classical music seem intelligible and familiar to audiences abound. Most of them involve demonstrations, and talking about the various themes and transitions. I've tried that.

In our first [Beethoven the Revolutionary] class, I played a sonata movement right at the start. Then later, after planting various ideas in the heads of the students by way of other sonata movements and symphonies, I brought those ideas into the domain of the first piece, talked about them, and played the piece again to end the class. Repetition.

Other times I simply point out salient features of the piece and then play it. Or play it first and then point out the salient features. Or just play the piece and let people make of it what they will. Or, once, take them on a talking tour but never actually play the entire piece--just the talking points.

Last week I tried a different method. After the intermission I sat at the piano and improvised on themes from the sonata movement I was about to play. The effect, I suppose, was somewhat like a solo cadenza from a piano concerto. I tried to use all the various bits of material Beethoven used, freely, letting them wander in different directions than had the composer. Also, some of the themes I imagined in a more primitive state. Beethoven of course was a gifted improviser, and he was also a composer who revised constantly. His initial ideas were not always that great, but eventually he fashioned them into something mighty. By letting some of the themes evolve during my improvisation, I hoped to approximate something like what might have happened when Beethoven was starting work on the sonata.

This may have gone a little bit into the specialist weeds, and perhaps it will not be something that many of my students will remember, despite the fact that virtually anyone else teaching the class would not have been able to do this. I found it interesting. If I weren't so busy at the moment I would have made recordings of the improvisation and the sonata movement so you could compare them. For now you'll just have to enjoy the concept. Maybe I'll get around to it this summer. I'm blogging about it now partially to remind myself that I did this, before the class is a distant memory and all I have are some incomplete teaching notes.

Improvisation is a good survival skill (such as when you have too much music to prepare in a given week or your lecture runs short) but it is also an insight into the creative process. Being able to take a given them and imagine other possibilities gives one a different relationship to the music, to be able to dialogue with it, and then to relish all the more the paths that Beethoven did take.


Friday, April 12, 2019

Dancing with Beethoven

Welcome to the Ludwig van Beethoven School of Dance. You can ignore those little footprints on the floor...we won't be needing them, Ever. Those are for people who think inside the box. Unlike our esteemed composer.

Yesterday, while we were discussing all the tonal peregrinations in the introduction to the Fourth Symphony, we were ignoring the third, in which even the most basic rhythmic elements are continually subverted, messed with, and otherwise played upon, to come up with a very interesting piece of music when by rights it should only be mildly entertaining. If you'd like to do some field research you'll need a recording of the first movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. 5,6,7,8...

BAM! BAM! Hear that? Those two loud chords at the beginning are there to let you know that what you are about to listen to is anything but a polite little waltz.

And that winsome little theme that follows is there to tell you that you are listening to a nice little waltz. If you expect Beethoven to make up his mind you will be waiting a long time.

Now the thing to note is how many different ways Beethoven is able to accent a simple measure of three beats. Many a composer has gone most of their compositional life accenting only the first beat, and leaving the other two for getting over the shock. Not our Ludwig. Even the opening theme has a slight variation:

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3

To say nothing of what happens a few bars later when he decides he's done with dactyls and thinks he will try trochees (in other words, switching from threes to twos)

1 2 3 1 2 31 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 32 3 1 2 3

if you're dancing this one at home, you now have two measures in which you can rest your second left foot.

There is a nice "theme" on one note, in which the clarinet treats us to a steady crescendo. This is a prelude to an even longer crescendo later on. It is Beethoven trying not to tax your ears by using too many notes. How is only one, over and over?
1231231231231

It is hard to stress two beats consecutively; perhaps the second is even louder than the first, but they both get to be forceful.

123 1 2 3123 1 2 3

Finally, don't forget our conventional pattern, which by now seems anything but conventional. The world has been upside down for so long, that turning it the "normal" way will seem fresh and new. And anyway, Beethoven doesn't seem to want to do it willingly. It's as if Mother Waltz forced it out of young Beethoven, who responds sarcastically, putting brusque, vicious accents on the first beat:

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 31 2 3 1

He doesn't seem to be able to quite hang on to it, though, does he?

And this has been Dancing With Beethoven. Remember to return your rented shoes into the bin by the fire extinguisher, and if you need a rest there is a fifteen-minute funeral march coming up after this movement is over. Are there any questions? Oh yes, you in the back.

No, I'm sorry, you won't be getting your Kreutzer back.

-----
it's the last of our out-sized Beethoven weeks on the homepage of pianonoise.com. But our featured recording has taken a break from all that for Holy Week, and the rest of the page is taken up with Flashy toccatas, and how to practice by not practicing. That's what happens when one gets the flu--everything is a little off! Come for the Pianonoise Palm Sunday Potluck, this week.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Toward a Beethovenian musical personality profile

Have you ever been to see somebody you hadn't seen for about twenty years and they joyfully proclaim, "you haven't changed a bit!"

That's probably bull-hockey, but we seem to be wired to want to recognize personality traits and hang onto those despite any conflicting evidence. You and I have probably changed a great deal in twenty years, but there may, in fairness, be some things that have remained more or less the same.

When it comes to a composer, one can often observe similar ideas across the board in their works, too. This is a bit harder, given so much musical information over such a wide swath of time. But it can still hold, and, even it it oversimplifies things, making a list of those frequently encountered traits in a composer's music might give us some insights into the way they communicate musically. Here's the start of one for Beethoven:


Beethoven likes to work with short musical ideas (except when he doesn't). These can be subject to endless manipulation, and by changing a single note, can send the composition spinning off in a completely different direction.

Beethoven enjoys exploring harmonies by full, rich, arpeggiated passages, usually in the development section and/or codas, making active, hair-raisingly virtuoso moments out of what could otherwise be simple chord progressions. Although, for a definition of simple, see the last paragraph.

Beethoven can work within predictably classical phrase structures. But often he willfully stretches a passage out, or transitions suddenly from one thing to another. Ideas or keys can also collide roughly. Sometimes Beethoven does this to play with our expectations, even tease us, amuse us, or annoy us. These can be experienced as transgressions against all things good (as his contemporaries often felt) but there is no reason to imagine that Beethoven wasn't trying to let us in on the humor or the exploration, so long as we are willing to come along.

Beethoven is a great musical architect. Little details often become major plot points later on. No transitional passage lasts longer than the material wants it to. Even his endings can, far from the conventional image of the repeated blasts, simply evaporate. In fact,

Beethoven's music shows enormous variety. It hardly fits in the popular image of him. And if you have time to really listen to his music, you'll notice that. There is little that can be said of him that would apply to everything he wrote; in fact, some of his music will show the opposite quality. It suggests he was always interested in trying new things, not repeating himself, and willing to go where the material led him, rather than coming at a piece with a set of assumptions about the genre or style he was supposed to be working in. A symphony does not have to be grand, or a sonata small. Each piece is its own creature.

This is only the start. Given a whole semester to think about his music has challenged some of the things I and my teachers thought about Beethoven in years past. Some ideas hold, others are being "updated." For example, the way he uses the sforzando mark. But I'll save that for later.

The man did put an enormous number of marks on paper. And it is amazing what we can do with all of that.

Douglas Adams once remarked (trying to express admiration for Bach) that "Beethoven's music shows us what it was like to be Beethoven" (before suggesting that Bach's music "shows us what it is like to be the universe"). I don't know, though. It might seem small by comparison, but that fellow had a lot to say. And being Beethoven must have been quite something.

He can have it, though. Along with my admiration. And my attention.



Friday, April 5, 2019

Symphonic Birding

We did some Beethovenian bird watching yesterday.

Beethoven is not particularly known for his programmatic music. When he did write a piece of story-driven battle music, "Wellington's Victory," it made him enormously popular for a while, but it is regarded today as one of his most embarrassing compositions.

He did, however, concoct a program for one of the nine symphonies. It is concise--in fact, it is downright terse if you compare it to the flowery, verbose plan of musical action left behind by the Swabian composer Hienrich Knecht, whose  "pastorale" symphony seems to have provided the inspiration for Beethoven's own. Sir George Grove speculated that Beethoven, seeing the advertisements for that symphony on the backs of Beethoven's own early piano sonatas from his Viennese publisher, thought he could do it better. And he did.

Beethoven's plan also evokes the natural world, an idyllic world of shepherds and babbling brooks, with a storm and a hymn of rejoicing at the end. What is interesting is how this unique foray into narrative-fueled music changed the way he wrote music.

On one hand, it didn't. Beethoven was working on his fifth symphony at the same time, and at yesterday's lecture I illustrated what would happen if you took the first four notes from the sixth and made the same dramatic, dialogical treatment with that motif, trying to turn the sixth into the fifth. It didn't really work, which illustrates the difference in materials. Yet Beethoven still pauses the symphony after only a few measures to set off the motif from what he will do with it. The first movement is still in sonata form, it still involves ubiquitous repetition of the motif, he still builds intensely dramatic climaxes by piling those fragments atop one another, exploring harmonies outside the key in the development section, suddenly veering from one tonality to another merely by changing a single note. Even the recapitulation features a slight digression before he gets into its heart, though this time it is not a oboe solo.

On the other hand, those motific fragments often float on repeated patterns that evoke running rivers or rolling meadows. Sometimes those motifs disappear altogether, and we have motion without melody, repetitively rising and falling, multiple measures of simple crescendo where only the dynamic is making the piece move. It is an early exercise in minimalism.

The birds are there, too. They are not merely reserved for that celebrated spot at the end of the Scene by the Brook where Beethoven stops the music and lets three woodwinds twitter away. They are everywhere, but because they are so seamlessly integrated into the symphonic fabric, we might not notice them. It only takes a couple of notes to suggest a bird call, and Beethoven need not labor the point, especially when he has such a wealth of material to develop. A measure here, a measure there, and he has made us aware of their presence without stopping the music, or veering from his musical materials. In fact, it is in the process of developing them that the birds arrive, so naturally, so integrally, that it is no embarrassment to any symphonist to evoke. And we can listen responsibly, hearing but not disturbing, noticing without getting off the path and damaging the undergrowth or disturbing the wildlife.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Behind the Scenes

Following a slight cessation due to a nasty flu bug (and several million of his friends) I will be back to teaching about Beethoven to about 80 of my friends next week.

It is always nice to get some personal stories and experiences into the mix, and this week I'm starting to ask for them so we can all share them the last week of the class. What kinds of feelings about Beethoven's music did we have as children, or experiences performing his music, or thoughts about him as a composer, good or bad? And how have they changed over time, or not?

In the meantime, a student informed me that my little stunt in last week's lecture, demonstrating how the shock modulation in the finale of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony (dropping a half-step from f# minor to F Major in the recapitulation) reminded me of stamping the floor to get a phonograph needle unstuck (which I proceeded to do with perfect timing)--the student mentioned that that very thing may have been done at one of the Hoffnung festivals in England decades ago (unbeknownst to me).

I was first introduced to the humorous Hoffnung festivals on a radio program in Cleveland called WCLV Saturday Night (so long ago it was also airing on Wednesday afternoons). I haven't had much exposure to them since those heady days before the turn of the century when I was a young lad, so I did some internet location and found a link that might be relevant to blog readers, given the hard time I gave the Leonora Overture no. 2 a week or so ago in this space. It is also apropos given that our last topic was Beethoven's ability to be funny. In this case, we are listening to the Leonora Overture no. 4, which is a concoction by English 20th century composer Malcom Arnold based on a real-life episode in which the off-stage trumpeter in a performance of Beethoven's real overture failed to come in at the right time. Enjoy:

Leonora Overture no. 4 (Malcom Arnold), Hoffnung Festival version

Also, for those wanting to work ahead a little, here's a piece I'll be using a piece of in next week's lecture, which has nothing to do with musical humor, an observation which is of little help in explaining why I'll be using it, but that's for those of you who (can and do) come to class next week to find out and for the rest of you to simply enjoy on its own demerits:

Concerto for Horn and Hardart 


Monday, March 25, 2019

Your cheese is a genius

It's been years since we all learned that exposing your baby to Mozart in the crib made it a certifiable genius (the parents were merely certifiable). And while that had all the marks of a major, internationally significant story for the ages, namely:

--anybody could get the same results simply by rushing out to buy Mozart CDs to play for their baby (which eliminates the annoyance of hard work and the uncertainty of genes) and
--other people could conveniently make piles of cash selling those recordings to their very smart customers (not the babies, the parents)

...while that may have been a very big deal, especially for the classical music industry, because it proved once and for all that art is actually useful (please believe us!), there is now a story that may even eclipse that, particularly if you don't have a child (let's face it, it's probably too late for your little doofus anyway) or you are part of the wine and cheese crowd.

Some folks in Switzerland wanted to find out if the flavor of cheese changed based on what music it listened to. This has always been of deep concern, along with questions about chickens and road crossings (why doesn't somebody just ask the chickens?). If you find yourself wondering what sort of geniuses would come up with such a study, it is obviously a group of persons who listened to Mozart all the time as babies. That is why you didn't think of it.

In homage to the first study, researchers tested different cheeses, giving them playlists of different kinds of music. There was ambient, techno, classical, rock, and hip-hop. Apparently, the cheese that listened to hip-hop was sweeter. Which was apparently what the head of the experiment was hoping for (let's hope there are no holes in his methodology). While this may seem like a blow to classical music (they used Mozart again), it isn't over until they do a follow-up experiment and find out what happens to the people who eat the cheese. I'm betting the mozart-eaters will all grow up to win Nobels.

Also, it turns out that the experiment was done in a place called Burgdorf. Remember it? It came up in a blog I wrote last year about web traffic. And the traffic from Burgdorf was right around the time they must have been conceiving the experiment....hmmm.

Well it's too bad they didn't select any of my music. I've played for people eating cheese before, but not for the cheese directly. I could have provided them with my own playlist. For one thing, I'd be extremely curious about the effects of playing Erik Satie on cheese. I guess I'll have to do that experiment myself.

Friday, March 22, 2019

No Laughing Matter

We spent yesterday in our Beethoven class talking about humor. Specifically how Beethoven was a funny guy.

Seriously, he was! I'm not kidding.

Well, sometimes he was funny, anyway. And while I told my students very sternly not to invoke my name as reason for their unruly behavior the next time they visit Heinz Hall, it is permissible, I think, to actually laugh out loud if the composer gives you reason for doing so. As if you could help it.

But the biggest obstacle to all that is that classical music isn't supposed to be funny. We've even got a synonym for it. We sometimes call classical music serious music.

Which simply means serious in its intent. That doesn't mean it can't be comic in its expression. I mean, Shakespeare wrote comedies. It's not like it has to be Vaudeville.

But jokes are in the ear of the beholder. And I think you'll agree that good comedy is in the timing. One person can tell a joke and have you rolling on the ground. Another will tell you something that ought to be hilarious in a way that seems completely unfunny. Why?

As a performer, I would submit that it takes talent. But first, you have to be looking for humor. If you assume always that Beethoven, that great lion of the concert hall, would never stoop to be funny, you'll play him that way. Here's exhibit A:

It's a video that someone posted (probably illegally) on Youtube of a terrific pianist playing a strange little piece of music. Now, I don't have a real problem with suggesting this fellow may have an insufficiency, though I don't like to pan other pianists online, because when you hear him play you'll note that one thing he does not have a shortage of is technical ability. It's astonishing. Jaw-dropping. The guy can play really, really, fast. And cleanly.

But that's sort of my point. I think his take on this piece was that it is a vehicle for virtuosity. Or, perhaps, he thought fast WAS funny. And maybe for some of you it is.

The piece he is playing is something that I had been considering playing in class yesterday on the piano, but time didn't permit. I ran out of time to learn new music (a half dozen sonatas later) and besides, the thing is really long. We had a good time listening to two symphonic movement and three movements from piano sonatas.

This piece is called a "capriccio" which is a whimsical kind of piece (think of a caprice). And it has a posthumously parceled out program, too. The story is that good old stormy, moody Beethoven lost a penny somewhere in his apartment and went ransacking the place to find it. That is supposed to be where the humor comes in. Obviously Beethoven didn't coin the title (sorry). But it is evident from the way that he suddenly shifts from key to key, or throws in those smashed notes (or chords for the full fist) or turns the theme upside down and practically throttles it, that he was having a pretty good time writing it. Not in rage, but in fun. At least, that's my take.

Our pianist, whose video is on youtube, may have been thinking more of rage than humor, or maybe he was just thinking he needed to show his pianistic prowess, which he has plenty of.

Anyhow, have a listen. It will certainly be worth your time.

Grigory Sokolov is the pianist, in the Rondo a Capriccio, op. 129, the so-called "Rage over a lost penny" by Ludwig van Beethoven here on Youtube

p.s. the program notes are worth reading, too.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Beethoven the mediocrity

I had a very disturbing experience this evening in the car.

When I flipped on the radio they were playing Beethoven. I recognized it immediately. The Leonora Overture. They were in the middle of a particularly vigorous section, and I was feeling fine, so while stopped at a red light, I did a bit of conducting. I've heard this piece enough times I'm reasonably confident that if they stuck me in front of an orchestra I could do a creditable job.

My hands called for an accent, which dutifully came out of the radio. Then a legato phrase. The recorded violinists obliged. Emboldened, I cued a crashing chord.

The orchestra suddenly got quiet. Disoriented, I thought to myself, that's weird. Did I misremember that passage? Then they got it wrong again, and the next thing I knew they were off in a completely different episode which I had never even heard before. Page after page of music that was completely new.

It was at this point that, being the music geek that I am, I recovered my mojo and began to guess what was going on. It wasn't Beethoven pranking me from the grave after all. You see, while Beethoven only wrote one opera, he wrote four overtures for it. The overture, the part the orchestra plays at the beginning before the curtain rises, has become a mainstay of symphony concerts and classical playlists everywhere. But there are three Leonora Overtures. I am most familiar with number three. I don't think I have ever even heard number two. And I began to sense that that was what I was listening to. All of the main themes were there, in the right order, but the stuff in between was quite wrong.

It was at this point that, having arrived at home, I had to stay in the car with the radio on just to hear the rest of it. And what I heard horrified me. Some of the passages were wooden, or awkward. Things a tenth-rate composer could have thought up. One phrase answered by a mechanical repetition instead of an inventive and arresting answer. The momentum kept dying out. At one point he couldn't even get the offstage trumpet call right. No wonder this was not Beethoven's final answer.


Beethoven seems to have felt that he kept not getting the overture right, so he kept trying again. I don't blame him. Eventually he even renamed the opera, which was originally going to be named for the strong female character, but ended up being named for her male lover. That's where the fourth overture comes in, the "Fidelio" overture.

You may not want to know this next part, but Beethoven is known to have labored on his scores, sometimes for a very long time. Sometimes his initial ideas are surprisingly weak. But it is as a sculptor that he excelled. The finished product, sometimes after months or years of revisions, is nearly always a masterpiece.

What is interesting is how people often react to that revelation. I remember a a fellow doctoral candidate tell me sincerely that she believed Mozart was a better composer than Beethoven because he didn't have to make so much effort and just tossed off masterpieces the first time. I think this is nonsense, in part because we now know that Mozart actually did make sketches and did have to make revisions some of the time, and also because to me it is the final product that counts, not how you got there. There have always been great artists who have to take the long way around. Is it appropriate to argue with process when you have the amazing results?

There may be some, though, for whom it is a comfort to think that even Beethoven didn't get to Olympus right away. That he could toss off a weak phrase, a poorly planned composition, and that it was often in the trying and trying again that the art happened.

Even Beethoven didn't often have to try four times, though. So what happened? Well, musicologists seem to think that the "2nd" overture is actually the first. And that the "3rd" is the 2nd. (Apparently somebody else got it wrong the first time, too!) The third is clearly a great composition for the concert hall. But apparently Beethoven felt that it didn't serve as a fitting introduction to the opera that was to follow. So, even though he'd produced a wonderful composition the second time around, he tried again. And again.

I'm going to have to listen to the other two in order and get back to you on what I think about those. I'm not particularly worried. This fellow knew what he was doing. I joked to my wife that I was going to have to cancel the class I'm teaching about Beethoven because I didn't think he was so terrific anymore, but that isn't true. And if he weren't Beethoven, nobody would have recorded his first effort. If he had been Brahms, he would have destroyed it so this would never have happened.

Monday, March 18, 2019

We now interrupt our regularly scheduled piano sonata...

If there is one thing that is obvious about the music for Ludwig van Beethoven, it's that he enjoys violent contrasts between soft and loud. He makes sure that's obvious by using very pedestrian themes, or by repeating the same short gestures in the opposite dynamic.

It isn't that he can't occasionally spin long melodies, but short, silence bounded gestures are a basic feature of his musical vocabulary. Maybe he thought Mozart had taken all the good tunes.

In any case, it helps him to be able to sculpt pieces to the finest detail, and it also gives us a sense of drama. If a short phrase is answered immediately by the same gesture in another key, or at a different dynamic level, we quickly sense conflict, or at least dialectic, in the musical argument. Something tense needs to be resolved, some solution sought. Surely these motivic factions can't keep up the fracas all day. One has to emerge victorious.

Of course, if both of the contrasting pairs are really different versions of the same musical idea, then we are left with an internal conflict, which is even more explosive. And whether Beethoven is using tense silences or driving accompaniment patterns, we can't relax until it is over.

Beethoven is famous for the four-note motive the opens his Fifth Symphony. But sometimes he can acheive just as much by drumming on a single note, as he did in his First Piano Sonata. Right out of the box, those Viennese knew they were in for something.

This is the fourth movement of that sonata. Three pounded chords manage to take us on an adventure of around four minutes, with a lyrical reprieve in the middle, when a tender melody takes the floor for a while. Bonus points for you, though, if your ear notices the accompaniment pattern to that melody being made up of three pulsed chords, over and over. He just can't leave that idea alone, even for a few measures!

And the "transition" to that placid tune is just as brusque: three loud chords, again.

Oh yes, and "second theme" of the turbulent sections on both sides of that serene interlude consists of a downward scale. It's like he wasn't even trying to come up with a good theme!

All of this happens in the movement with the fastest tempo possible, "prestissimo."

Enjoy!

[Listen to Beethoven: Piano Sonata no. 1 in f minor, op. 2 #1   IV. Prestissimo]


Friday, March 15, 2019

Beethoven the Control Freak

I entitled my lecture yesterday "Beethoven the Obsessive" but a blunter, more contemporary approach might have been the title above.

Last week Kristen and I went on one of our Frank Lloyd Wright tours. We've been on several, and as it happened, were on vacation in a part of Florida near to the campus of Florida Southern University, which happened to be the architect's one opportunity to pretty nearly design an entire city, or, at least a dozen buildings on a single college campus.

To say Frank Lloyd Wright, probably the world's most famous architect, wanted things his way is an understatement. He didn't just design the building, he designed the furniture to go in the building. And he placed it where he wanted it to go. Woe unto you if you moved the furniture and he found out.

Another thing you weren't allowed to do was to buy and install your own light fixtures. If the room got dark before five it was because he had designed it that way. He put windows in the parts of the house that he wanted you to use when he wanted you to use them. Kitchens (which he dismissively referred to as "work space") were small and only for making sandwiches and getting out of there. He didn't like basements, and he didn't do garages. Cars were made for carports. Natural lighting was the way to go. Don't get him started on air conditioning.

On campus there were several spaces made for just passing through, made as narrow and as unattractive as possible. Then the buildings, in which a narrow entrance suddenly broadened to an expansive room (a favorite trick of his), said to everyone: here is were you want to spend your time. There was probably a brood of single-paned windows near by. Wright, the designer of indoor environments, wanted you to spend as much time out of doors as possible, or at least feel like you were outside even when you weren't.

Wright had a theory about life, and the way it should be lived, where you should go and when you should go there, what should be stored where, and what just didn't belong. So yes, he had pretty much decided on everything. If you bought a Frank Lloyd Wright house you had to accept those conditions. Once he even designed a dress for the woman of the house to wear so she didn't clash with his decor. Let's call him, even if we admire his art, a little controlling.

Inevitably, given my series of lectures this month, I began thinking of how he compared to Beethoven.

Beethoven's musical architecture is just as renowned as if he had designed buildings. True, the roof won't collapse on a poorly executed musical composition, but there is a tremendous effect when the structure of every phrase of music adds up to a significant whole. If you read the musicological literature on Beethoven you will often come up against analysis that holds him up as a brilliant designer of musical forms. Single notes, gestures, planted on the first page, return on the last. Things surprise, then seem inevitable. Nothing is wasted, nothing goes unexplored. If Beethoven says he will talk about it, he does. Once he said thirty variations on a single waltz.

Even the endings are important. The stereotypical crashing chords aren't there when they aren't needed. Many years ago I pointed out to my roommate that the theme of the first symphony was a study in acceleration: two chords a measure apart, followed by three at twice the pace. At the very end of that movement, the final chords followed the structure of theme, sans melody, exactly. And then, a full twenty minutes later, at the end of the entire symphony, the same pattern, only twice as slow, concludes the whole essay. Beethoven, had he been an author, would have even made sure the words "the end" bore a direct connection to the materials explored throughout the piece rather than just tacking them on.

It may be easier to control the flow of a piece of music than it is a building, simply because you need less cooperation to pull it off. But in terms of design neither man left anything to chance. Everything that is there is made to connect with everything else. Both have their favorite themes, but the miracle is how those themes have been made to harmonize with everything around them.  For Beethoven it is also about how each possibility is explored, and each theme is developed, a study in variety that is not simply an exercise in diversity but also has one overarching purpose. Like the persons on Frank Lloyd Wright's ideal campus, we are going exactly where he is taking us.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Into the Weeds

Being a classical musician can be a pretty lonely business. Hardly anybody wants to know what you were thinking about all day. My spouse, who is a doctor, gets questions and opinions about medicine all the time. Everybody has something to say about the subject, and everyone has had some experience dealing with it. Or they just want free advice. Nobody has ever asked me about that A-flat that's bothering them.

But starting this week, 80-plus people will be listening to what I think about Beethoven. For two hours, every Thursday. For five weeks. Go figure.

On Saturday, though, I got a head start. A violinist I was playing a gig with had some questions about a piece I played (solo). It was a movement from a Beethoven Sonata, which I dare to think of as humorous. It will be part of next week's class, "Beethoven the humorist." I expect it to be a bit of tough sell, because the image that most people have of Beethoven is that he was by no means a funny guy. My violinist friend was curious because my interpretation had been pretty wild and he wondered just what was in the score. Where those loud chords fortissimo or just fortes? Did Beethoven put a big accent there? How much of a slow down did he want in that one place?

I admitted that it was possible that I was exaggerating some of the effects. Beethoven liked to dispense "sf" pretty regularly and consistently, even sometimes to indicate bringing out an inner voice line. He didn't use the contemporary "sfz." Two f's was as loud as he got (unlike a 20th century composer he didn't use three or four), so any chord marked with ff was probably intended to be pretty loud, since it was the top of his spectrum.

In the end I felt reasonably confident about the loud chords, less sure I hadn't overdone the sf's a bit, even if they were on weak beats, and not sure how much ritardando Beethoven himself would have employed. I don't recall that he used the additive "molto" when he wanted to distinguish a lot from a little.

But here's the case for the defense. In the first place, his contemporaries found him pretty shocking. At least at the time, his accents and tempo fluctuations must have seemed out-sized. You could make an argument that, adjusting for inflation, the same needs to be done for a modern audience or we will miss the point.

And here's the argument from image. Beethoven has become a fixture of the concert hall. He is adored by ritzy concert going upper class people. His music is interpreted and re-interpreted by pianists with publicity photos in suits and ties, staring profoundly off into space while seated at their instrument. Given his propensity for hanging out with people who could support his art, Beethoven always was an outlier associate with the rich and cultured supporters of the status quo, but it is likely now that he has been overcome by them. It is normal for the radical founders of movements and art forms to become domesticated by disciples and succeeding generations so that more people will find them more palatable. I myself have participated in this trend. Having been taught to make beautiful sounds at a Steinway, I just now found myself choosing a passage on a recording in which I did not lay into the accented note with as much vigor as the other times I played it. The note is out of tune on the piano and the results seemed to me more desirable when my finesse obscured this fact. Recording in general tends to make the rough places plain as sonic beauty wins over distorted, pounded notes.

On Friday on this blog we talked about how Beethoven is seen as the stormy musical arsonist. But the industry that has perpetuated him has other ideas. Today Beethoven is played faster and louder then ever, of course. Performers still have to establish their credentials, so that is a trend that will only accelerate. But the silky sounds of a piano that Beethoven never knew, and the refined unfolding of the form move in the opposite direction. Pianists with little or no imagination tend to play phrases more metronomically and give no space to the surprises the composer plants for us. Pieces we've all heard hundreds of times sound completely predictable, each modulation totally normal. It would never occur to many of us to take any particular notice of a turn of phrase that is actually quite astounding if you let it be that way. If you just run on to the next measure you can lose any arresting qualities it might have the way a bad comedian can tell a joke that nobody has time to realize was even funny because the pacing was all wrong.

These are all things that will be going on beneath the surface as we explore "Beethoven: The Revolutionary" over the next month. They are thoughts that will keep playing in my head and will never completely resolve. It was my great grand-teacher, Arthur Schnabel, who suggested that great music is music that can never be completely captured by any single performance because it is better than any performance of it can be.

Of course, during a live performance I may feel able to take liberties I might not in a recording. Too bad for my blog audience. But then, a lot of that reception is going to depend on your ears anyway. What comes across as shocking to you? Or funny? Or beautiful? Or strangely out-there?

Let's take a month to explore it together.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Grand Teachers

In college, a fellow student referred to him as "grandteacher."

Leon Fleischer was coming for a masterclass, and my teacher had been a student of his. Later I took some lessons directly with "grandteacher." It turns out that my teacher (Thomas Hecht) had a very similar teaching style. No wonder he'd been Fleischer's assistant.

Leon Fleischer, at the ripe old age of six, had begun lessons with Arthur Schnabel, the great Beethoven interpreter. Schnabel didn't normally teach children but he made an exception for little Leon.

Schnabel studied with a man named Leschetizky. I had to look that up to make sure I spelled it correctly.

Now, that would make Schnabel my great-grandteacher, and Leschetizky my Great-great grandteacher. He was born in 1830 and settled in Vienna where he taught many eventually famous students. But it is his teacher we are concerned with.

His name was Carl Czerny. The same fellow who wrote all those fun exercises pianists hate to play. He wrote so many that he would work on several at once, writing part of one while he waited for the ink to dry on another so he could proceed to the next measure.

His teacher was Ludwig van Beethoven.

That makes me (and many other pianists as well) a seventh generation pedagogical descendant of Beethoven. And that would also make Beethoven my--let's see here: Great great great great grandteacher.

I don't know that that has anything to do with the price of Sonatas in Singapore, but it is at least an interesting connection. On Thursday I begin a series of lectures about a man I never knew personally, but who gave the world a great deal musically. I've been playing some of it for most of my life. His influence as a composer has been huge. It's never quite as easy to quantify one's influence as a teacher. But his student's student's student's student's student's student is glad of it anyhow, and will do his best to keep that art alive.

Friday, March 8, 2019

It usually comes back to marketing

I've been thinking about Ludwig.

Not Ludwig of Bavaria, the "crazy" monarch, although it has occurred to me that, luck of the hereditary draw notwithstanding, a good percentage of the population might have elected him anyway--no, I'm talking about Ludwig van Beethoven.

There is a popular perception that he was a pretty crazy guy as well, stormy, moody, nasty, and very, very, very serious.

Which may not be all wrong, but if you know popular images the first rule is that they are always oversimplified.

When they were passing out images for classical composers there were only so many to go around. Bach was the intellectual. Haydn got jovial. Mozart got to have a sense of humor, but of a less earthy, surprise-bound variety than his contemporary. When they got to Beethoven, humor had been done already. What was left was shocking. The bad boy of music.

It is true that Beethoven did things in music that had not often been done before. And that he broke strings. And that he told princes that they weren't any big deal just because they were royalty. His music does have quite a few shocking sforzandos in it.

But he wrote a lot of pieces that are beautiful, and jocose, and even, sometimes, funny. In fact, if you look at his entire output, it is surprising the number of musical moods he was in. Stormy is just one of them, and probably not the most often represented.

But everybody needs to have their own individual "thing." Beethoven got his corner of the market because it was different than what had come before. It also helped that he didn't seem to comb his hair. Maybe Mozart should have lent him one of his wigs.

But wigs were out and revolution was in. And images are born because people need them to explain what is going on in their world and to justify it. Images are there to do battle with other images which means they have to have a character that everybody can easily hone in on. And then, once the image jells, they start selling the merchandise, and you can pretty much forget anything that doesn't fit the image then. A picture that had Beethoven actually smiling in it would be worth millions simply because it would be so rare. If it existed.

So now Beethoven is the guy with those fateful eight notes who went deaf and fought a mighty battle with life and everyone around him. Which probably isn't all wrong, but if you know any human beings who can laugh and smile some days and rant and rave on others, who can grin and groan, who can be--what's the word--human? you might wonder if this image of Beethoven even passes the smell test.

But most people don't wonder about that. Images are useful. They serve our purposes. And as long as they do that, we don't ask what else is under the mask. Sometimes we just don't want to know.

I'm teaching a class that starts next week. The Beethoven my students are about to meet is a little complicated. Some of him they'll recognize and some of him they probably won't. What will they think of that one, I wonder?

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

In the moment

If you're looking to write a best-selling self help book in the near future, you could tell people to spend more time living in the present. That's always been a message people are eager to hear.

We like to read about it because we don't do it. Instead we spend a lot of time depressed about the past and worried about the future. Or just distracted.

Effective practice obviously requires being focused on what you are doing in the here and now. If you are worried about what you are going to make for dinner you aren't concentrating. If you are upset about the notes you missed the last time around and all you can think is "don't miss them" you will miss them.

Really letting go of useless baggage is a cultivatable skill. It can take some time. But the real talent is not in the over-simplicity of popular advice, it is in being able to tell what will be useful.

For example, the other night when I couldn't sleep I used the time to rehearse a lecture on Beethoven I'll be giving next week. My brain wanted to keep running and I let it. I had probably had too much caffeine that day. And, while worrying about something I have to do next week is counterproductive, preparing for it is not. Also, a lecture is something you can actually rehearse in your head while you lay in bed, unlike practicing an instrument.

There are ways to accomplish that, however. Once you've got a piece to a certain stage in preparation, you can go over it in your head. But simply worrying about it might not always be a bad thing.

Last week I found out rather suddenly that I would be participating in a master class this month, playing a tricky 20th century French piece on the organ. In the midst of various other preparations, that is just another thing to add. And I wanted to get a quick start on it. But between Monday night and Tuesday morning all I could do is worry about it.

I think that may have helped. I had played the piece before--spent two weeks on it exactly a year earlier. And although I couldn't consciously remember any of it at the time, I think sending signals to my brain that I was going to need it again may have actually helped my research department locate the files.

Anyhow, the handful of days I had to work on it before the next interruption was enough to get started. It's partially memorized, and feels familiar under the fingers.

The brain is a fascinating place. It doesn't come with a manual, and learning how to use it to maximum advantage takes years. Unlike the popular bromide, we can't just live in the present. The past and the future are always part of us. We can always learn from the past and we had better prepare for the future or we won't like it very much when we get there. But there is obviously a place where we have stopped enjoying the once place we actually are, and our obsessions are unhealthy. Figuring that out is what the other 299 pages of your book are for.

Monday, March 4, 2019

More -Wely

Tomorrow is the day for pancakes.

No, I'm not talking about National Pancake Day, though I'm sure there is one. It's Shrove Tuesday, the day before the beginning of Lent. A lot of Christians spend the six and a half weeks before Easter being reflective and penitent, sober and sombre. And that takes a lot of calories.

Actually, the church calendar is full of feasts and fasts, and the alternating rhythm of same can be a real anchor in the slipstream of time. Fasts give way to feasts, such as Lent yielding to Easter, but hungry, inventive humanity found ways to make sure the day before the fasts was as full of fat and savor as they could manage. Let's run right up to the boundaries full tilt before we have to stop and walk. Hence the pancakes.

There are other traditions, parades, hi-jinx, general merriment. I like to take part in that rhythm musically. This year, you may have noticed, the weekly featured recording is from a fellow named Charles Louis Alfred Lefebre-Wely. It's a postlude he wrote for church, but it wouldn't be out of place at the circus. So before we go full Lent--actually, this year it's going to be full Beethoven, since I'm teaching a class on same--I thought this website could use more Lefebre-Wely.

That's a joke my British readers will understand.

Some year I'd also like to drop in the Schumann Carnaval. Somewhere I have a recording from my junior Recital, over a quarter century ago, but it's not digitized and I probably wouldn't like the playing anyhow. In the meantime, let's enjoy some joie-de-vivre  with our pancakes will we observe one of a myriad pleasant little customs our species has devised to help us hurtle successfully around the sun.

Sortie in Eb: by Charles Louis Alfred Lefebre-Wely


[if you missed it, the rest of the pianonoise.com weekly lineup is available right here]

Friday, March 1, 2019

Here's a Guy who gave them tunes they could sing

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck ought to be the patron saint of musicians trying to survive as musicians. It's true, he arrived a little early to understand the precarious life of modern arts organization, of radio pledge drives or symphonic marketing, and his circumstances--that of a gifted musician trying to make a living in a situation where the jobs were not plentiful and the road was not easy--was not unique, even for the 18th century.

I mean, if we want to pursue a really hard luck case we could vote for Bach's student Johann Ludwig Krebs, who couldn't get a position as organist for a while and then was literally (and I employ the term in its intended meaning rather than as a mere flavor particle)--literally working for food. And only that. That was all he got paid, in an era where getting paid in food was not entirely unusual (part of Bach's salary was in wood and beer).

But Sweelinck did not have an easy road either, and I happen to be playing a piece of his this weekend for a church prelude so why not talk about him? He is regarded as the founder of the North German organ school so he is a very important fellow for organists, and while he started off being mentored by a friendly priest, said priest was forcibly removed a year into Sweelinck's job when the Protestants took over the town.

It could have been worse. In an effort to distinguish themselves from all things Catholic, Protestants would often destroy the church organ (too ostentatious: God likes all things plain, they thought), often with axes. Here, the town council spared the instrument.

They even engaged Sweelinck to play it. It was determined that the new hymns which were to be sung during the services were unknown to the congregation and someone would therefore need to teach them. Sweelinck thus wrote a number of pieces in which the new hymns were the subject of variations. He played them as preludes before the service.

During the service the congregation were on their own. Apparently the Protestant God couldn't handle the complexity of an instrument filling in harmony with the people's singing. So they sang unaccompanied.

But Sweelinck had a way to live, and to share his music. And he was performing a vital function for the common people, one important solution that is generally noted when objections to the existence of snobby and culturally useless art are thrown around, as Ms. Gerston noted via Monday's blog. He may have been asking them to listen, but that was so that they could sing, later. It wasn't meant to leave them behind, but to invite them to be a part of the music.

Maybe the townsfolk merely put up with the variations for the sake of the unadorned tune. In the case of this week's selection, though, it seems to me fairly obvious in all four of the sections how the tune goes. It's sort of a shame we won't be singing it during the service, but I don't pick the hymns. This is one of the rare weeks we are singing tunes with which most folks will be familiar, anyhow.

Here is a bit of Sweelinck, adorning a hymn that translates to "To God in the Highest Alone Be Glory." I've used an older type of tuning (In case you found a bit of it odd) and it is tuned nearly a half step higher than modern ears are used to, as was the case with North German organs of that era.

[listen]