Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Difficult Times for Classical Music

Image of music staves with complex time signatures with caption "These are difficult times."

Recently, I was talking with some folks who were lamenting the dwindling size of classical concert audiences, and we were trying to think of ways to rebuild them.  It’s a nearly universal phenomenon.

I think I understand one of the reasons why classical music (concert or recording) is such a hard sell these days.

Time.

Or rather, time and focus.

Both, it would seem, are in precious little supply these days.  There is more to do, there are shorter deadlines, there are more things vying for our attention.

And a symphony takes, say, 45 minutes.  Nobody has 45 minutes in one block anymore.  And that’s just listening time.  If you’re going to a concert, you have to include travel time, intermission…you get the idea.  And to get to the concert, you’re probably going to have to fight traffic, not conducive to preparing one for focused listening.  Oh, and don’t forget to turn off your phone before the concert (and check if there’s anything you need to attend to immediately?).  After the concert, when you turn your phone back on, it will be sure to alert you if you missed anything.

But then, people go to pop concerts.  Since the time commitment’s the same, what’s different?  Well, there’s more moving around on stage, possibly dancing.  People have their phones out taking pictures or videos, tweeting.  There might be a light show* and pyrotechnics.  I don’t advocate pyrotechnics for a classical concert (except in the case of the 1812 Overture, then definitely).  And it’s hard to dance with a cello.

And, the obvious, the songs are shorter, the form of the music is easier to grasp, and the tempi are probably faster.  James Gleick, in his book Faster,1 explored the speeding up of modern life; others have noted the same trends.  You can have your groceries delivered if you have no time to shop, and make dinner in an Instant Pot cooker if you have no time to cook.  Texts have replaced emails, which replaced written letters (cursive writing is facing near extinction).  We are in the age of the tweet and tl;dr (too long; didn’t read…thank you for your continued reading!)

What was the complaint about Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations in 1981?  Oh yeah—too slow.  Was he trying to tell us something?

 

Schubert’s sonatas have been said to unfold “at heavenly length.”**

When was the last time you had the luxury of that kind of time?

 

So, what do we do about these concerts?  I wish I had a surefire answer.  We might make them more approachable, more lively.  We might change the programming a little; in the early 20th century, one might hear a sonata movement, not the entire sonata.  That’s not necessarily true to the composer’s intent, but now, if something catches your ear, you can probably hear the rest of it on demand and explore.  Others have noted the tyranny that audio recording has imposed on live performance—there is less risk-taking, because people want to hear what they heard in the recording, which is flawless, immaculate (and the product of numerous takes and editing).  I’d prefer to hear someone playing from their soul, taking some risks, even if it means a few mistakes are made.

Or we can hope that the pendulum will swing back, and people will begin to turn away from the relentless jangling go go go of getting and spending,2 quick, easy, fast, now living, and turn more toward a slower, more deliberate pace, with focused attention and the taking of time.  And, with that, the savoring of classical music.

Thank you for your precious time and attention, now and always.

And now, Glenn Gould’s 1981 version of the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

 

Footnotes

*The organist Virgil Fox had light shows at some of his concerts.  But then that was the 1970s…

**Robert Schumann first applied it to Schubert’s Symphony in C Major; it was later more broadly applied to his sonatas.

References

  1. Gleick, James,  Faster.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.
  2. from William Wordsworth’s The World Is Too Much With Us, via poetryfoundation.org. It was written around 1802, published in 1807 (also see Written in London. September, 1802).

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Image attribution: Difficult times via https://imgur.com/gallery/Mb8q5.

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Haiku Wednesday: Schubert–Last Hope, Last Leaves of Autumn

Stick figure looks at the last leaf on a tree in autumn

Here and there upon
The trees, many colored leaves
Remain, and often,

I stand there and think.
I spy one leaf, and upon
It, I hang my hopes.

The wind stirs the leaf.
I shake. If it falls, I’ll fall,
And weep for lost hope.

The haiku above is a rendering of the words of Wilhelm Müller’s poem Letzte Hoffnung [Last Hope], which was set to music by Franz Schubert as part of his Winterreise song cycle.  Here is Letzte Hoffnung, performed by tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch.

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Image attribution: Drawing by C. Gallant, 2017.

The painting that is the background in the YouTube video is Abandoned by Jakub Schikaneder.  He was known for his paintings of lonely figures–a perfect choice for Winterreise.


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To Sing on the Water

Photograph of the rippling, shimmering water of a lake as seen from a kayak

Sometimes, you have to get out of the office. Way out of the office.  Or just away.  To a place where there are no computers, no connectivity, no cell phone coverage.  No chargers, no chatter, no cable.

The middle of a large body of water is optimal.

Sunshine and breezes on a beautiful day can go a long way toward recharging your own battery, and the shimmer of a beautiful lake, the splash of water as your boat travels along are incomparable antidotes for the noise and bustle of a busy life.  And we’re all busy, too busy, always aware of the ticking clock, the march of time.

All this hustle and bustle might seem to be a modern phenomenon, but really it’s not.  People have been escaping to nature for a very long time.

Schubert, ah Schubert!  He knew; of course, he knew.  In his song Auf dem Wasser zu singen. Schubert sets to music a poem of Friedrich Leopold zu Stolberg-Stolberg that describes a boat trip at evening and reflects on the passage of time.  The piano ripples like the water, and the play of light and shadow at evening is reflected in Schubert’s characteristic shifts between major and minor keys.  The poet also notes the passage of time: each day time escapes, flying away.  But he is not disturbed, as he says that he will take wing and escape from time someday.

Here is Schubert’s Auf dem Wasser zu singen, performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore.

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Image attribution:  Photograph by C. Gallant, 2015.


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Haiku “Wednesday”: Better Late than Never

Frederic Chopin

Consider Chopin,
Whose pianistic brilliance
Reached beyond the grave:

His unpublished works
Were supposed to be destroyed;
But fate intervened.

But then sometimes fate
Abruptly ends the music–
Sometimes in mid-line.

These posthumous works
Let the creative candle
Burn a bit longer,

Another insight
Into the life and soul of
A voice lost to us.

Work gets interrupted, whether it’s the humble writing of a blog, or the composition of a symphony.   Sometimes things are…terminally interrupted, or lie finished, but unpublished, languishing long after a composer’s death.

Chopin requested that all unpublished works that were “not worthy of me” be destroyed after his death.1  But Chopin’s mother and sisters countermanded that, and had Chopin’s friend Julian Fontana pick out the best pieces, which were then published and cataloged as posthumous works.2,3

And this is hardly a unique case.  After Schubert’s death, some of his unpublished songs were gathered into a song cycle that was called Schwanengesang (Swan Song).  While some of the songs appeared on consecutive pages in Schubert’s manuscript version, by no means were all of the songs unambiguously meant to be presented together, and his last song, Taubenpost, was clearly added by the publisher.4

And then there is the matter of incomplete works.  Schubert’s eighth symphony remained unfinished at the time of his death.  Mozart’s Requiem was incomplete—he had written sketches for several movements, and it fell to Franz Süssmayr to complete it, who added some movements of his own for good measure.

Bach’s The Art of Fugue ends in the middle of a fugue.  Mahler’s last symphony was unfinished, and Puccini’s opera Turandot was missing part of the finale at the time of his death.5

Last page of Bach's The Art of Fugue

Last page of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. The note written by CPE Bach says, “in this fugue, where the name B A C H is introduced in the countersubject, the composer died.”

In some cases, the works are presented as is (Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9).  But given the human nature to tinker, some latter-day composers have tried their hand at completing some of these incomplete works based on the composer’s sketches (see here for a list).  Not all of these extrapolations have been universally accepted.  They are interesting experiments though.

Some works that see the light of day only posthumously may be awkward yearbook pictures from a composer’s youth, others unsuccessful experiments that the composer neglected to pitch into the fireplace.  Others, gems that lacked a bit of polishing and a publisher.  Yet all give one more glimpse into the composer’s life, like finding a photo of a relative long gone.  I cannot help but quote Douglas Hofstadter’s poignant reference to a Chopin étude (please forgive the length) from his book I Am a Strange Loop.6

One gloomy day in early 1991, a couple of months after my father died, I was standing in the kitchen of my parents’ house, and my mother, looking at a sweet and touching photograph of my father taken perhaps fifteen years earlier, aid to me, with a note of despair, “What meaning does that photograph have? None at all. It’s just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It’s useless.” The bleakness of my mother’s grief-drenched remark set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her, but I did not quite know how to express to her the way I felt the photograph should be considered.

After a few minutes of emotional pondering—soul-searching, quite literally—I hit upon an analogy that I felt could convey to my mother my point of view, and which I hoped might lend her at least a tiny degree of consolation. What I said to her was along the following lines.

“In the living room we have a book of the Chopin études for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad—and yet, think of the powerful effect that they have had on people all over the world for 150 years now.  Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning.  Those pianists in turn have conveyed to many millions of listeners, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Frédéric Chopin’s heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Chopin’s interiority—to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Frédéric Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards—scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Frédéric Chopin. Each of those strange geometries of notes has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal experiences of another human being—his sufferings, his joys, his deepest passions and tensions—and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was like to be that human being, and many people feel intense love for him.  In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again, but in the medium of brains other than his own.   Like the score to a Chopin étude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.”

 

I think it’s appropriate to close with a work that might never have been heard: Chopin’s Nocturne in C -sharp minor.

References

  1. http://www.radiochopin.org/episodes/item/862-episode-163-fryderyk-posthumous-chopin-polonaise-in-b-flat-minor-adieu-a-guillaume-kolberg
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miscellaneous_compositions_(Chopin)
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_compositions_by_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric_Chopin_by_opus_number#Published_posthumously_2
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwanengesang
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unfinished_creative_work
  6. Hofstadter, Douglas R., I Am a Strange Loop. New York: Basic Books, 2007 pp 9-10.

Image attribution: Final page of Bach’s The Art of Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach. (Berlin State Library, Germany.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABach-unfinishedfugue.jpg .  The note at the end, written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, says, “in this fugue, where the name B A C H is introduced in the countersubject, the composer died.”


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Binge Watching Brendel’s Schubert

Franz Schubert

I found a series of videos of Alfred Brendel playing Schubert impromptus, moments musicaux, and more that I wanted to share with you.

Here are some Schubert impromptus, D. 935

Here are some Moments musicaux, D. 780

Here are some more impromptus, D. 899

Here are Drei Klavierstücke. D. 946

Here is the Fantasie in C Major, D. 760, the Wanderer Fantasy

And if you’re really committed to binge watching (got four hours?), here are Schubert’s Piano Sonatas 14-21.

I think I’m going to need a bigger bowl of popcorn.

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Image attribution: Portrait of Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFranz_Schubert_by_Wilhelm_August_Rieder_1875.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: Antonio Salieri

Portrait of Antonio Salieri by Joseph Willibrord Mähler

They say he poisoned
Amadeus Mozart; but
That is not the truth.

And then they called him
A second-rate composer;
If he was so bad,

Why then did Schubert,
Liszt, Beethoven, and Czerny
Call him their teacher?

He’s been much maligned,
Old Antonio Salieri.
Here’s the real story.

If you ask people who Antonio Salieri was, the two most likely answers might be

“Who?”

or

“Isn’t he the guy who poisoned Mozart?”

Since I’ve been pointing you in the direction of a series of free Mozart concerts in the last few weeks (more to come—stay tuned!), I thought it only fair that I clear up some of the misunderstandings about Salieri.

First, Salieri didn’t poison Mozart.  Though the two had their differences, they respected each other.  Salieri produced a revival of Mozart’s Figaro in Vienna (when he had the opportunity to produce an opera of his own), and Mozart himself wrote of Salieri’s enthusiastic reactions during a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute that the two attended together.1 A collaboration between Salieri and Mozart, once considered lost, was found in 2016.  After Mozart’s death, Salieri taught his son, Franz Xaver Mozart.

Salieri’s students included the composers mentioned above, and more.2 Students were keen to learn about vocal writing from him, as Salieri was a highly-regarded figure and a very successful opera composer.  But Salieri didn’t always get it right: fortunately, Schubert ignored Salieri’s disdain for the German Lied,3 and went on to write over 600 of them.  Salieri taught most of his students for free, remembering how one of his mentors had once taught him for free.  I think it’s fun to note that, “from time to time Salieri treated his pupils, Schubert among them, to ice cream, which was obtainable from a lemonade kiosk….”4  Picture Salieri, Schubert, and other students standing on a Vienna street corner eating ice cream!

As for the second-rate composer jibe … well, when you’re constantly being compared to Mozart, that’s a no-win situation, isn’t it?  The criticism is typically leveled at his non-operatic works.  You can judge for yourself:  more of his secular and religious orchestral and chamber works may be found here.  Here is Salieri’s lively Sinfonia Veneziana.

When it came to opera, however, Salieri was an innovator.  He would mix aspects of serious and comic opera, use established singing styles in unexpected ways, and he even incorporated ballet.  Many of his operas were very successful, in particular, Armida and Les DanaïdesYou can see the entire opera Les Danaïdes at this link.  Some of his other operas, including Tarare, Axur, re d’Ormus, L’Europa Riconosciuta, and La grotto di Trofonio are also available online.

Here is the overture to Les Danaïdes.

If you find yourself becoming a Salieri fan, you might want to check out some of these recent recordings.

Salieri—he’s making a comeback.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Salieri
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_music_students_by_teacher:_R_to_S#Antonio_Salieri
  3. Gibbs, Christopher H., “Writing Under the Influence?: Salieri and Schubert’s Early Opinion of Beethoven” Current Musicology No 75, Spring 2003, p 125 (quoting Deutsch, Otto Erich, Schubert: Memoirs by his Friends, trans. Rosamond Ley and John Nowell. London: A &C Block, 1958 pp 20 and 130). https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/27300266.pdf
  4. Reference 3, quoting Deutsch, p 66.

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Image attribution: Portrait of Antonio Salieri by Joseph Willibrord Mähler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAntonio_Salieri_painted_by_Joseph_Willibrord_M%C3%A4hler.jpg.


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A Resource for Piano Students: University of Iowa’s Piano Pedagogy Project

piano keys

I started out looking for a Schubert waltz for you today.

In the process, I found the University of Iowa’s Piano Pedagogy Project on YouTube (note: there is a spoken-word video that plays automatically on this page).

Their goal is to provide videos of pretty much the entire beginning and intermediate piano teaching repertoire, eventually reaching around 9,000 videos.  That’s right, 9,000.

What will you see?  Each piece performed neatly and accurately, perhaps a little slower than what you’d see in a performance, with pedaling clearly visible.   Perfect for learning the pieces.

What won’t you see? Overly dramatic renditions of the pieces, played exceedingly fast.  There are no overhead or close-up views of the hands (so you can see the pedaling).  No histrionics, just straight-up piano playing.  Perfect for learning the pieces.

What can you hear?  You can hear Bach preludes and inventions (no fugues—they’re not exactly beginner material), Beethoven dances and sonatinas, some easy Chopin, a host of works by Clementi and Diabelli, Albums for the Young (Schumann and Tchaikovsky), Kabalevsky’s 24 Pieces for Children, Bartok’s Mikrokosmos…you get the idea.  If you’re a piano student (or teacher) you’ll find some familiar contemporary names too, folks who write music for learners, including Vandall, Mier, Alexander, and more.

Why is this resource so cool?  Because when you’re figuring out a new piece of music, you want to hear what it sounds like.  And while you might hear your teacher play it in a lesson, you might not have a recording at home.  Or you might not have access to a teacher at all.

There are plenty of videos and recordings of the complicated stuff.  But for beginning and intermediate level works, they can be harder to find.  And sometimes, amateur recordings by amateur players are…less than optimal.  The performers’ mistakes may become yours.  Bad idea.  That’s why this particular project is a very good idea.

There are playlists on the YouTube page for multi-piece works and some repertoire books, and you can always use the page’s search function to find what’s available.

So if you’re a piano student or teacher, or if there’s a piano student in your family, check it out!

Oh, and here’s that Schubert waltz I promised you, from Sentimental Waltzes, Op. 50, No. 13.

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Image attribution:  Piano keys by Truls (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APiano_Keys.JPG