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."


[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 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.