Friday, December 27, 2019

A new tradition is born

After the joyous reunion this year of all of the members of the creche, one of whom had been separated from the rest for a very long time, our seasonal mouse got a bright idea: why not go caroling at the gingerbread house across the way? And there was much rejoicing, and of course much off-key singing. In fact, the carolers enjoyed it so much they asked our humble mouse to organize a caroling tour to various creches in the neighborhood. Our house boasts several. Some are made of felt, some glass, some are ornaments on our tree. The mouse, an ambitious fellow, thought he'd try them all, but that was before they thought of the cat that patrols the house, and before they realized just what sort of treacherous terrain they would have to overcome.

The first stop was a creche made of glass, on the mantle in the front room.

The small wooden cat on the far right, who lives on the mantle, enjoyed the singing very much, and said they could come back anytime. He refrained from licking his lips as he said this; besides, the mouse is just as big as he is, and he is not an idiot.

The next stop was a creche made of felt. This one came from Israel, when Dear Wife's grandmother was there a few years ago. I am pretty certain the glass one came from my side of the family, though I am not sure if it has an exciting provenance. Again the singers enjoyed themselves, and would have been invited in for figgy pudding if Mary wasn't a little busy with her baby. The young lad seems to have forgotten his gift, and had to go back for it whilst the rest of the crew waited patiently.

Then it was on to the upper story. There is in particular a ceramic creche atop the television, and its neighbors include a lazy reindeer and a Christmas tree in miniature. There was no figgy pudding to be had there, either. The carols seem to have confused Mary and Joseph with people who like to cook.

Then it was on to the most difficult stop of all, a creche that was in the midst of the Christmas tree. The original creche's Mary and Joseph had saved themselves a lot of trouble by not coming on this journey. They thought that if they went to visit their counterparts it might mess with the space-time continuum.

The three wisepersons and the shepherd tried to hang on to various branches while singing (which was not easy and produced the weakest tones of the afternoon); our young man could not hold on and fell flat on his back far below (he was not hurt because it's Christmas). Momma and her child managed to sing at a funny angle, and the mice-tro did his best to conduct but is was hard to tell what meter he was in. One of the kings sang lying down in a branch above.

After this they all agreed they'd had enough caroling, even the wiseguy they had left behind because after the first stop he couldn't resist saying "well, we can creche that off our list." He got to spend the rest of the outing on cat-lookout. It turns out that while the cat was very interested in the proceedings, she did not get directly involved.

It's the final weekly Christmas edition at

Friday, December 20, 2019

Mouse Musik

I don't normally brag about my compositional accomplishments, but my music was recently featured in a rather unique fashion. While some of my colleagues were out hitting the big time, I took the opposite tack. After all, a lot of us think bigger is better, but what about smaller?

The ladies of our church make a Christmas ornament each year. It is a mouse, about two inches high. Each year's model has a different occupation or participates in a different activity. There is a mouse from one year that is a hair dresser. It holds a leetle tiny hair dryer in one paw and a leeetle tiny comb in the other. It is one of my favorites. There is a mouse who is a baker, and one on skis. Quite a large number of these festoon the church office this time of year. I should have taken a picture of all the mice. Maybe I'll edit this later so you can see the village of mice. The lady who founded this tradition recently passed at the age of 102!

In July I was informed about this year's model. This is rare, because nobody outside the inner circle gets to know what this year's mouse is going to be before the great unveil at the holiday bazaar in mid-November. But I was cleared for secret because this year's mouse is musical and they wanted me to help with it.

It's called the "mice-tro." Get it? Get it? That thing in its left paw is a conducting baton, and in its right paw is a book of music. That's where I made my contribution. The music it is reading is a piece of mine, shrunk down to mouse size. It is five pages long and the entire piece is there, minus the bass line on the last page--at least on my copy--which is about par for the course when soloists are copying things for their accompanists!

The piece I chose for the occasion is a setting of the Advent hymn "Now Come, Savior of the Nations" in a festive Renaissance dance. I played it as offertory last week for the church, using an "enlarged" edition. You can listen to it right here in a recording I made back when the piece was new four or five years ago.


After we brought our mouse home we put it on the media center with the creche and the Christmas decorations. Our mouse, it should be said, continues to be in demand and has an active schedule as a performer. After the joyous reunion of the other creche-members the other week,
the member who had gotten misplaced decided they should all go caroling at the gingerbread house next door. Mice-tro led the singing.

The Christmas festivities continue at

Friday, December 13, 2019

Parker's Pastorale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to Pastorale by Horatio Parker

Friday, December 6, 2019

What happened to Christmas?

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

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

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

OH GOD, what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, I may not convince.

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

Friday, November 29, 2019

That was some year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a nap.

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

Friday, November 22, 2019

Return to the Old Stomping Grounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 15, 2019

Diversity in Adversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 8, 2019

Don't bother your pretty little head about it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 1, 2019

Undisturbed development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we are the beneficiaries.

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

Friday, October 25, 2019

Enemy of the People

Dmitri Shostakovich has to be one of the most endangered composers in history, and certainly the most famous of them. While other well-known composers were getting out of Russia in 1917, like Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev (who inexplicably returned later), Igor Stravinsky, and a host of others less famous, Shostakovitch stayed. He doesn't seem to have considered leaving.

Shostakovich managed to have a decorated career. He wrote a lot of music, achieved an international reputation, and was praised for some of it in his own country. But always there was the extreme difficulty of trying to function artistically in Joseph Stalin's Russia.

This wasn't just a matter of artistic patronage. Stalin was an absolute dictator, and if he didn't like something he could have you exiled or killed. Between the Second World War and his own "purges" it is estimated that he is responsible for the deaths of about 20 million human beings.

Dmitri Shostakovich got off to a brilliant start. His First Symphony was a huge success and got him noticed internationally. His opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was  wildly popular for two years.

Then he had his first real taste of Joseph Stalin.

The dictator attended his opera, decided he didn't like it, and shortly afterward there appeared an article in the official state newspaper, "The Truth" called 'Muddle Instead of Music' which attacked the opera in no uncertain terms. This was in January 1936. Only 10 days later another article appeared attacking a ballet of his. The composer thought he was finished. He had become, in one of Stalin's favorite phrases, an "enemy of the people."

"I was called an enemy of the people quietly and out loud and from podiums. One paper made the following announcement of my concert: 'Today there is a concert by enemy of the people Shostakovich....I was swamped with anonymous letters saying in effect that I, enemy of the people, did not have long to tread on Soviet soils, that my ass's ears would be chopped off--along with my head."

The composer believed that Stalin had written the article himself, particularly because of some of the phrases which echoed the ones that seemed forever stuck inside the dictator's head that he would repeat ad naseum and that didn't really mean anything. After all, Stalin could make up his own language, couldn't he? In any case, the article was anonymous, which meant The Party had directed it. Which meant there was no arguing. Shostakovich's friends wouldn't have anything to do with him for a while.

Yet somehow Shostakovich survived that nightmare, even though many of his friends and associates did not. One of them was his friend Meyerhold. "It's impossible to imagine now how popular Meyerhold was. Everyone knew him....And then the man disappeared, he just disappeared and that was it. As though he never existed."

Many musicians and artists disappeared in those traumatic times. Near the end of his life, the composer sat for secret interviews with a man who took notes on what Shostakovitch said, got the pages approved, and smuggled them into the west, only publishing them after the composer's death. the result was "Testimony," from which these quotations are taken. In it, the man recalls many incidents from his life and talks mostly about the people around him. And he chronicles the disappearances of so many of them.

Survival was never certain in Stalin's Russia. Holding Western ideas or being in any way critical of the party or of Stalin was sure to get you executed of course, but sometimes trying too hard to be doctrinally pure could get you in trouble as well. And sometimes what the party favored changed rapidly, and you could get caught being associated with something or someone that was no longer in favor. Some people referred to it as a lottery. One thing was sure: the moment someone disappeared you had to make sure you were in no way connected with them, and had better obliterate any traces of their friendship; correspondence, artifacts, everything. Help the state make sure they never existed.

In 1948 there was another shake-up, and Shostakovitch was again reprimanded along with several other Soviet artists. The usual accusation was that they were promoting Western ideas. They would be called "formalists" which was a deliberately meaningless word for "not Soviet enough." Stalin's whim set the tone for that.

And his whim could also lift a composer up as well as bring him down. There was a special prize for excellence in Soviet art in that period, known as the Stalin prize (naturally). Shostakovich won a few of those. His music was still periodically praised. Official denunciations and recognition could follow one another in a dizzying whirl. Once Stalin needed Shostakovich to go to America for propaganda purposes. He telephoned the composer who mentioned that he was currently officially banned so he couldn't go. Stalin acted surprised, and countermanded his censure, forcing Shostakovitch to go and help spread the fiction so many  American leftists were more than willing to swallow about how wonderful things were in the USSR.

Stalin needed artists as part of his program to mold the minds of the Soviets, just as rulers have long done. Shostakovitch was clearly one of his country's most gifted composers. But Stalin was not one to forgive errors. How did Shostakovich live through two periods of official condemnation?

A Shostakovich biography calls him a yuródivyy, a Holy Fool, one who tells the truth to the king and isn't killed, usually because his guise as a fool protects him as others are not.  Shostakovich was clearly no idiot. He did write quite a lot of movie music; this was Stalin's favorite entertainment, and it probably bought him a lot of good will, even while the composer considered it largely a waste of time. And he was known in the West, particularly during WWII, when the Soviets and the Americans fought against Hitler. The composer's Seventh Symphony became a powerful political statement against fascism--at least, that's how Stalin saw it. During the war, Soviet composers could compose music that was more morose, and get away with it, because it was assumed to represent the struggle against Germany, rather than a complaint against the system at home. These things may have helped Shostakovitch to stay alive, although we don't know just how close he may have come to a premature end.

In "Testimony" the composer displays little patience with those who think his music wasn't a protest of the Soviet system. Writing of his famous Fifth Symphony, the one written just after his first period of official denunciation, which helped rehabilitate him with the state, he writes "I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing [at the piece's conclusion] is forced, created under threat....It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.' and you rise, shakily, and go marching off, muttering, 'Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.' What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear it." Many in the Soviet Union chose to hear triumph in those closing bars. They may have been idiots, but their misapprehension may have helped save the composer's life several times. In instrumental music, just what is going on, anyhow? Whose ears make that determination?

People have heard all sorts of things in the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, and have argued violently about what they have heard. If "Testimony" is both accurate in terms of the word of the writer, who did not record Shostakovich except on paper, and in terms of the memory of an old man about a past he may or may not have remembered accurately, then the picture that emerges is one of an artist who meant his music to serve as a protest, and somehow, perhaps because it was in music, and the authorities often heard acquiescence instead of anger, or felt if they kept him alive they could yet mold them to their ends, he continued to use his symphonic voice to the end.

"I know that many will not agree with me and will point out other, more noble aims of art. They'll talk about beauty, grace, and other high qualities. But you won't catch me with that bait....I've always protested harshly against this point of view and I strove for the reverse. I always wanted music to be an active force. That is the Russian tradition."

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Gloves Come Off

Louis Moreau Gottschalk didn't just take off his gloves. He TOOK OFF....HIS GLOVES. Let's let a pianist who traveled with him explain:

“It was the fashion of the time to always wear white gloves with evening dress, and his manner of taking them off, after seating himself at the piano, was often a very amusing spectacle. His deliberation, his perfect indifference to the waiting audience was thoroughly manifest, as he slowly drew them off one finger at a time, bowing and smiling meanwhile to the familiar faces in the front rows. Finally disposing of them, he would manipulate his hands until they were quite limber, then preludize until his mood prompted him to begin his selection on the programme.”

I left my white gloves home yesterday, which is just as well, as we were running behind on time and I needn't have wasted five minutes with those silly gloves. It might have been amusing, though...

Yesterday was the first of five lecture recitals in the series I'm giving for OLLI/UPITT. The subject is composers of various times and places making music in difficult conditions. Chopin was on the first half, and Gottschalk on the second. Chopin left his native Poland at 20, not realizing he would never return. A political uprising which was crushed by Russia, resulting in the basic non-existence of an independent Poland for yet another episode in their sad history, made it difficult for him to return, so he made a life in Paris among the Polish community there, living in exile, and writing music in a pianistic style all his own. He redefined national Polish dances, recreated old genres, and fostered some new ones, such as the Ballade, of which he wrote four.

There really were no rules for the Ballade: even the world, which suggests both "ballata" (a dance) and the Medieval Ballad (or narrative romance) hadn't been used as the title of a piano composition before, to say nothing of the rules of the form. In Chopin's hands, each is an adventure, the end a mystery until it unfolds before us. Four fascinating musical journeys, which pianists treat as the gold standard of their repertoire. These I played on the first half of our session.

After the intermission it was time to meet Mr. Gottschalk, of whom I have written several blogs, and recorded some of his music. Gottschalk had an interesting life, which I wanted to explore at least as much as the music. Touring on three continents before the age of air travel, assembling mass concerts with up to a thousand performers, a Southerner touring the northern United States during the Civil War, a pioneer in so many respects, introducing America to its own music and to the relatively newfangled idea of the piano recital, all while entertaining the troops, wearing out the rail lines, and trying not to get him and his pianos shot, or captured (by his own people). What a life! And he only lived to be 40.

Next week we'll be in 20th century Russia, meeting Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich.

There's more about Chopin and Gottschalk on the homepage this week at Also, the final days to listen to music for the concert at Trinity Cathedral before I post some Scary Organ Music for Halloween!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Composers in Exile

This is one of those weeks when I really could have used a secretary.

I am neck deep in piano music at the moment, and am taking a short break for the weekly blog. Other bits of my life are getting attention if they rise to the level of emergency squared, otherwise they can wait while I practice.

Next week begins a series of lecture concerts for the UPITT/Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. This year's ambitious theme is "Composers in Exile: Music in Adversity" and it covers a wide range of styles and periods, playing the music and telling the story of composers who for one reason or another found themselves in difficult situations and continued making their music. I feel like I'm about two months behind in preparation (having also had half-a-dozen other concerts to prepare for this summer and fall, including several I learned about as the year unfolded), yet it does feel like there is a chance this will come off after all.

This Thursday features the music of Chopin, a Pole who spent most of his life in France. He voluntarily left his country for travel, study, and international exposure as a young man, but revolution soon after made it difficult for him to return. He kept his connection to his native country alive by writing national dances: mazurkas and polonaises, which he elevated to the status of high art. However, I'll be playing his four Ballades. Instructor's prerogative!

After the intermission, we'll sample the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, an American, born in the south, who toured the northern United States during the Civil War. Gottschalk kept a diary and is a very entertaining correspondent, particularly in his entries from late June 1863 when his agent put him in central Pennsylvania and he nearly got himself mixed up in the Battle of Gettysburg.

That's just the first week! On the second, we'll look at the music of Rachmaninoff, Shostakovitch, and Prokofiev, three 20th century Russian composers who had to composer in the ambit of Joseph Stalin, the cruel dictator who could have you arrested and killed for anything (including art) which displeased him. Rachmaninoff left Russia shortly after the revolution began, never to return, Prokofiev left around the same time and actually went back to Russia in 1936, Shostakovitch never left, and despite two very public censures for his music, somehow avoided getting killed, even as many of his friends were.

From there, we'll visit music of the Baroque and Classical periods, and the music of Haydn and Scarlatti, two composers whose employment circumstances caused them to spend most of their lives in artistic isolation, and then listen to music by several women composers whose work was either ignored or sidelined because they were required to marry and put away those foolish artistic ideas. Exile from self will also for a motif as we examine the music of Robert Schumann and discuss the mental illness that drove him to attempt suicide.

In the final week, there will be a composer who spent time as a prisoner of war, another who avoided death in the French Revolution somehow, another who felt alienated from his time and place. And others, as time permits. There are so many stories. In some respects, composition has always been a challenge. It never pays the rent; most of history's successful composers earned their livings as performers or teachers, never through creative endeavors directly. But these composers faced additional hurdles which could make life a burden, and even the loss of it a distinct possibility.

It may sound a bit depressing, though there is plenty of room to consider it all a triumph of the human spirit if you like. The music will do most of the speaking, and it is diverse, giving many answers to what comes from struggles which are just as varied. Sometimes bold and dramatic, sometimes beautiful, innovative or reactionary, classical or romantic or modern; the problems, and the solutions, of human creativity are amazing to behold. For the next five weeks we'll do just that. Come along, will you?

the weekly edition of Pianonoise includes a recording of a Chopin waltz and on PianonoiseRadio music for my most recent organ recital at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh. It's all at

Friday, October 4, 2019

Somebody else's refrigerator

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27, 1756, the second of two children to survive infancy. His musical talent was recognized early; soon he was touring Europe with his parents and sister. His first compositions came when he...

Are you snoring yet?

Let's try this again.

Salieri stared dully at the dagger in his right hand; then, with a cry, he thrust it into his chest and slumped forward...

I don't have this blog hooked up to any medical equipment, but if you are like most of us, your pulse quickened a bit as you read the second example. You probably wanted to keep reading it, even if I couldn't be bothered to make it sound a little less like a dime store novel.

It's not as if the first example doesn't get some readers. It's full of important information. Kind of. But the problem that remains goes to relevance. What does it matter to me (selfish being that I am) what year somebody else was born, even if he was Mozart? I see examples of this principle in action all of the time.

For instance, I learned a long time ago that most of my listeners never set foot on this website. Sites that offer searches for various composers or pieces of music will find stuff from all over the web. Then they "hotlink" to the recordings and play them from their own platform. In some cases they don't acknowledge where they got the recordings, but in others they offer a chance to visit the source. Most people don't take them up on it. They don't care where it came from, they just want the pretty sounds. A recording of Mozart is a recording of Mozart no matter where it comes from. Sometimes even the Mozart part doesn't matter, so long as it is pretty.

That explains why branding is so difficult. But there is another force at work. Information is not very exciting to most of us. It doesn't elevate the blood pressure, sharpen the senses, threaten our survival or promise quick reward. Besides, there is information and there is information.

As I type this, my wife is relating a story to a third party about something we learned yesterday while vacationing in Portland. Most of the narrative details involve the emotional reactions of the persons involved in a conflict that led to the creation of an Oregonian landmark. There are plain facts, but most of these are not a part of my wife's narrative. The story is woven out of human behavior. It is still factually correct, it is still history, but it is the kind of history that eschews names and dates in favor of feelings and desires. These are the things that swirl below the surface of each of us, and are common to everyone. Things we can relate to. Writing an opera by age 9 or a symphony at 4 or whatever is just like reading the accomplishments of somebody else's child on somebody else's refrigerator. The only thing we can remember afterward is being jealous.

When I taught a class on the movie Amadeus last year I observed that the dramatist had made a brilliant decision to see the play and then the movie through the eyes of Salieri, and his dark, brooding feelings. Had Schaffer done what most movies about composers do, which is to record the accomplishments of the composer, in chronological order, desperately trying to make up for the biographical nature of the film by making the love life as crashing as possible, Amadeus wouldn't have been half so interesting. Instead, he chooses for his protagonist someone to whom we can relate. Not because we've ever thought seriously about murdering someone (necessarily), but because Salieri's beef with God is that he doesn't think he got a fair deal. He was going to be chaste, industrious, and faithful, and God was supposed to make him the greatest composer ever. God cheated on the deal by making a loutish childish buffoon a better composer than Salieri. If you work hard you are supposed to succeed. This plainly isn't fair. Is there anybody who doesn't feel like life didn't deliver on everything they thought they had coming?

1756 is just a year. But feeling aggrieved is a basic drive. It dominates the entire inner world of huge portions of our citizenry. Even the relatively well-adjusted can't quite wriggle from its grasp.  Watching in rapt horror to see what Salieri will do next is what moves the film forward, not Mozart's next concert. It is a brilliant conceit. It is so good that Peter Schaffer can't help making it a part of the movie itself.

Mozart is trying to sell the concept of his next opera to the Emperor. Tired of operas with high-flown themes of gods and nobles, he sticks up for the common person. He says, "Who wouldn't rather hear from his hair dresser than Hercules?"

It's not just the alliteration that lands the line. It's the pitch itself. Salieri will never be Hercules.

But he makes a hell of a hair dresser.
go to to read/hear more this and every Friday.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Do go on! Or perhaps not....

Quick! What do you do when you are in the middle of a concert and a note on the organ ciphers?

If you are lucky, you happen to be playing a passage for one hand, and you can use the other one to try to tease out the cipher by rapidly playing the affected note again and again until, miraculously, the slider closes, and the cipher goes away.

For those of you quite lost at the moment (which includes everyone except organ nerds), a cipher is a pipe that will not stop sounding when you take your finger off the key because the mechanism that blows the air through the pipe has gotten stuck in the open position. Sometimes the only thing you can do about it is to turn the organ completely off, and then, if the problem is still there when you reboot, try to find the ciphering pipe and stick a piece of paper in between the toe of the pipe (at the bottom) and the wind supply, which will disable the pipe, meaning it will not be able to play, but it will at least stop droning on and on. In the middle of a concert those last options aren't really available--not the last one, at least--but I did spend part of a sermon once crawling around a pipe room trying to fix a cipher. I got it, eventually.

That's part of the fun when you play the organ. Not that the piano can't have its challenges. I was once in the middle of a performance of Scriabin's Fifth Sonata, which is a tricky piece, and the F# above middle C just did not want to go down. I kept trying to unstick it whenever I had a hand free, which was only fleetingly, and required some serious acrobatics. Eventually I got it to cooperate. It must have taken the entire exposition and about half of the development to get there.

With the organ, though, there are all manner of intricate details in the way it is operated, and these vary from instrument to instrument, which is why it is such a useful opportunity to be asked to play concerts in different locations.

Yesterday, when I was at the cathedral, I noted with dismay that the trumpet I was going to use toward the end of the opening piece wouldn't sound at all. Given that an unfortunately large percentage of the organ is in disrepair at the moment, I assumed the stop had somehow given up just in time for the concert. I told the organist, and he was also dismayed, and assumed it was not working. Fortunately there was another trumpet on the same division that I employed instead. After the concert he realized that the rear gallery of the cathedral, generally known as "west" (whether a church faces east or not the altar is still considered to be on the east end of the church in liturgical parlance) had not been turned on. On this organ, each division (or at least three of them) have their own keys and must be turned on separately. It is something to file away for the next time something doesn't go according to plan. I've also come across three different locations for manual transfer switches recently.

I have written that the organ is a great instrument for problem solvers. And the more often I go "on location" the better I get. I can now register an entire concert pretty fast. If one stop isn't working, or the reed just doesn't sound right, or is too soft or too loud, I can find a synonym (alternate reigstration) quickly and move on.

Of course, one shouldn't discount the importance of dumb luck. This summer, at a large cathedral with lots of reverberation, I joked to some people who had missed my concert that if they went to the cathedral in the next few days, they might still be able to hear some of the previous week's concert before the sounds completely died away. Yesterday's cathedral was smaller and drier, and the long held soft reed was not at all intentional. But after a few desperate attempts to get it to stop, it did. Things could have been worse.

Of course, that wouldn't have been the end of the world, either. Maybe next time I'll take along some piano literature, just in case. Or improvise on a drone note for a while!

Now that could be interesting.
It is the last week of September at where you will soon be able to hear the music for the concert I gave at Trinity Cathedral on Wednesday. In the meantime, you can hear the Mel Bonis Toccata, the featured recording of the week, and....I forget what else.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Another week, another concert (or two, or three)

Life ebbs and flows. For me, this year feels like high tide.

So far this year I've played an estimated 11 different concert programs, with about 6 more to go. No, 7. Anyhow, I'm busy. I don't mean there will be 19 times I have hit the stage in 2019, I mean there will have been at least 19 different programs to prepare, which is kind of a lot of music. I don't know what the total total is, although there haven't been many chances to repeat concerts, so it can't be much higher (25, maybe?). And of course, for a musician, that kind of activity is glorious, and also frightening, because those are a lot of close deadlines. I hadn't planned it that way when the year began, it's just that it all came together at once.

One of the highlights of the year is the fact that I've been invited to perform on every available organ-only concert series in the area. There are only three of them, though two take place in cathedrals, and one in a very nice large church with a terrific organ. In the midst of that, I was asked by a colleague to play the beautiful Heinz Chapel again, which is a series for organists and lots of other instruments (and singers). This, I think, makes it qualify for the Grand Slam, as it is four concerts. All four being in the same metropolitan area, I felt obligated to prepare different programs, which helped me solidify my hold on some of the repertoire I learned hurriedly and one several years ago. Actually, I'm not sure if anybody did go to more than one of those concerts. And I did allow myself to repeat one piece on two concerts.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to gain a toehold as a pianist, and between two series of lecture recitals I've designed myself, and 3 piano recitals in Ohio earlier this year, I will have managed to play more piano recitals than organ recitals.

All of this probably does not add up to very exciting blogging, but it does promise that when I get more time to release some of the recording, the sound catalogue is going to get very interesting. This year I've played several fine organs by fine organ builders including Austin, Beckerath, Casavant, Rueter, and whatever they have at Trinity Cathedral (I'll know next week). And when I get the time, I now have four microphones and a recently tuned Steinway, so there should be some fine classical repertoire coming your way relatively soon.

Meanwhile, forgive me if I owe you an email or have forgotten to do something. I'll get to it. After next Wednesday's concert, things get a little more focused (just piano, just one series of concerts, no organ).

When that happens, we'll all take a breath, remember the fascinating year that was, and I can get back to some hopefully helpful observations for musicians, as well as sharing more music and ways to listen to it. In the meantime, I've learned a lot about multi-tasking.

The other day I practiced for three recitals in the same day--all without wearing out my mind or beating up my fingers, or losing my head with stress. That is something I couldn't possibly done a few short years ago.

As to what's in it for you--surely I'll figure out what we can all learn from this, besides trying not to get into a situation like this in the first place! Besides, between all of the fear (which is, after all, a great motivator) I'm also having a blast.

See you again next week, after the concert.