Friday, August 9, 2019

Great Uncle Fred

Any relatives reading this might be surprised to learn that I have a great uncle Fred.

Actually, his full name is Fred Chopin.

He's not a blood relative, but in matters musical he's probably been more of an influence on me than many of them.

I didn't realize to what extent this was true until I started playing his music again recently. You dedicated readers know that for much of the life of this blog and its accompanying website, the piano has had to vie with, or even take a back seat to, the organ. That's also been true for my activities as a composer, though there is less evidence online for that. And there have been various jobs, gigs, detours, hats--I've basically taken the long way around. While starting off as a classical pianist, the trail has gotten much more complicated than that. But once again, I seem poised to make my way back to the classical piano literature. Fred is there to help me recover that strand of my DNA. He is also there to remind me just how much of it has gotten absorbed into my own music--technique, compositions, improvisations, all of it. Who knew?

When I was at the conservatory the halls were filled with people playing Chopin. A little too often, I though. Not because I didn't like Chopin, but because I believe you can overdo anything. I once wrote that Chopin had died of consumption in 1849 and "is still dying of it." This was my brilliant observation in the margins of a piano literature exam. My just out of school instructor didn't appreciate comments like it. He wrote "STOP IT!!!!!!" I think he may have also been a bit high strung.

It was difficult to want to play Chopin with the place always ringing with the sounds of a few over-popular measures on endless loop from all the practicing, but I managed to eak out a little. I was more interested in Mozart and Brahms in those days. But I did, at some point, look at the four Ballades. I don't remember playing them for very long, and I'm sure I never played one on a recital. But perhaps I gave them more of a run than I thought. At least I am suspicious of just how quickly I (re)learned them these last two weeks. That's usually because somewhere in the back of the brain, some relevant material still lingers in storage from long ago, which in this case is a quarter of a century. Of course I was also young and my brain was a sponge. So who knows? Who remembers?

Anyhow, I'm enjoying my time with Fred this month. I've decided to play some at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh in two weeks. It's a bit daunting to take on 50 pages of Chopin in just a few weeks, but I try not to worry about that and just focus on how nice it is just to get back to the piano, slow practicing and reinforcing music from long ago.

Meanwhile, it is like visiting an old friend. A student recently recalled when I had observed in class that each composer had their own signature, their own musical traits, or obsessions, or methods, or sometimes a favorite constellation of notes. It's an observation that might strike some people as a surprise, but only if you don't have a favorite author or composer or painter or some kind of artist. Then you start to recognize stylistic habits. Something that begins to sound like Chopin, or the 19th century, or Eastern Europe. That recognition also helps you learn faster, and to interpret with some understanding. And sometimes it is just nice to hold on to in a crazy ever-changing world.

My uncle Fred stopped writing us musical letters a long time ago. But the ones he left behind are still fascinating so many years hence. I'll share them with you in the months to come. You'll like them. They make the piano sound like it is fulfilling its destiny. They've even helped me to understand myself a little better. Here's to Great Uncle Fred!

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