Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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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His unpublished works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   Sometimes things are…terminally interrupted, or lie finished, but unpublished, languishing long after a composer’s death.

Chopin requested that all unpublished works that were “not worthy of me” be destroyed after his death.1  But Chopin’s mother and sisters countermanded that, and had Chopin’s friend Julian Fontana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  After Schubert’s death, some of his unpublished songs were gathered into a song cycle that was called Schwanengesang (Swan Song).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


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Haiku Wednesday: Johann Nepomuk Hummel

Johann Nepomuk Hummel

Let’s all get to know
Johann Nepomuk Hummel—
Best you’ve never heard.

Piano, trumpet,
Viola, bassoon, and flute—
He composed for all.

Enjoy music from
Johann Nepomuk Hummel.
Then go spread the word.

If you don’t know Johann Nepomuk Hummel, here’s a little of what you’ve been missing.  Listen to the third movement of his Trumpet Concerto.

Wow, that’s better than caffeine!  It’s the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and the trumpet soloist is Elmer Churampi.  I love seeing the performers smiling.  Music should be fun!

If you would like to see the entire concerto (different orchestra and soloist), you can see it here.

Hummel was a virtuoso pianist as well as a composer.  As a child, he caught the attention of Mozart, who was so impressed with his ability that he took him into his home and provided him with free lessons for two years, after which he studied with Muzio Clementi in London, and Haydn and Salieri in Vienna.  Hummel was friends with Beethoven and Schubert.  He worked with Haydn at Prince Esterházy’s court.1

Hummel was surrounded by greatness—and that perhaps is part of his anonymity problem.  A star may be bright, but you will never see it when the sun is shining.  Over time, his more stellar contemporaries got more attention, and his works were nearly forgotten.

Hummel’s music is not performed very often, and it is a pity, because he wrote some very enjoyable music.  Here is his Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano (Op. 78).  Bassoon fan?  Here is Hummel’s Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra.  Here is the compelling (and fast fingering-intense) Return to London for piano and orchestra (Op. 127) (oh, did I forget to mention that Carl Czerny was Hummel’s student?).  Finally, I think you will enjoy the charming Rondò brillante in B Minor for piano (Op. 109).

For a detailed account of Hummel’s life and links to videos, performances, and scores, see The Hummel Project webpage.  You can also find more of Hummel’s music on YouTube.  Those who read German may want to visit the website of the Hummel Gesellschaft Weimar.

I hope you have a Hummel-ful day!

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Nepomuk_Hummel
  2. The Hummel Project webpage, http://www.jnhummel.info/en/index.php

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Image attribution:  Engraving of Johann Nepomuk Hummel by Pierre-Roch Vigneron, based on a portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Nepomuk_Hummel#/media/File:JNHummel_2.jpg . Also viewable at http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b84212189 .


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Haiku Wednesday: Schubert, Snow, and Gray Hair

Stick figure with gray snowflakes falling on his head

Snow fell on my hair
Making it a shiny white.
I thought I’d turned gray.

And I was happy
To be close to journey’s end;
But it did not last,

For soon the snow thawed.
My black hair made me despair.
How far must I go?

From night until dawn
Many a head will turn gray,
But, sadly, not mine.

The above haiku is a paraphrase of Wilhelm Müller’s poem Der Greise Kopf, set to music by Franz Schubert.  It is part of Schubert’s epic song cycle Winterreise.  The song immediately precedes The Crow, previously described here.  The wanderer, having left his lover and the comforts of home, wanders through an inhospitable winter landscape. Here he seems to find the coating of snow making his hair gray ironic; he wishes he were old, and that his journey, that is, his wandering and his life, were closer to an end.  For him, bitterly, it is not to be.

Here is Der Greise Kopf performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Murray Perahia.

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Image attribution: Stick figure in snow by C. Gallant, 2017.


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Schubert and Andras Schiff

Portrait of Franz Schubert, around 1827

Franz Schubert c. 1827.

In my wanderings through the Internet, I came across a documentary on the life of Schubert presented by pianist András Schiff.  I enjoyed hearing Schiff’s perspectives on Schubert’s life and works, which to me lifted it from the realm of typical documentary fare. Schiff’s illustrative playing on a rather wonderful Bösendorfer make it that much better.

The Royal College of Music has made three of Schiff’s master classes available on their YouTube channel.  The classes are on Schumann, Schubert, and Haydn.

And now here is Schiff playing the Andantino from Schubert’s Sonata in A Major, D. 959.