Posts tagged ‘Chopin’

July 14, 2014

And then There’s Brahms

What is it about some music that holds our attention and continues to move us, while other music charms us for a while but then loses its allure? I’m speaking not just of heard music but of music we play ourselves, or try to.

I’ve taken up dozens of compositions with the full intention of doing justice to each before moving on to anything else. In all but a handful of cases I’ve put them aside. I play for my own pleasure, not to make a living or because music is my profession. If I begin a novel I generally finish it. There are good reasons for not finishing a novel. Lack of discipline is not one. I’ve completed more than a dozen novels plus scores of short stories and all manner of non-fiction. When it comes to music, I feel I can afford to be choosy, fickle, even undisciplined.

But I’m becoming convinced there’s something besides self-indulgence that determines whether I stay with a new piece or put it aside after a couple weeks. Whatever that something is, it has nothing to do with an individual composition’s difficulty. I’ve labored over a simple menuet by Krebs or Pachelbel and breezed through a technically more difficult waltz of Chopin. There’s a Beethoven sonatina I’ve been hammering away at forever. I’ve invested too much time and effort to set it aside entirely, but I’m not motivated enough to put in the time required to make it my own.

Why? Because, I think, it doesn’t speak to me as other music does. It doesn’t resonate in a way that makes it infinitely repeatable. To put things simply, I just don’t care about that sonatina enough. A few years back I did care a great deal about almost anything by Chopin I could manhandle. I intended to learn all his music I could. After a while, though, his moods began to cloy: too much adolescent angst, too much of the same tale of death and unrequited love. I continue to play the bit I did learn of him, and I still listen to Yulianna Avdeeva’s Chopin with great pleasure. But all I do at the keyboard is maintain a familiarity with the waltz in A minor and the first part of a polonaise I learned by heart when that composer still absorbed most of my attention.

And then there’s Brahms.

Brahms and I have had an on-again off-again relationship over the years. I mean before I ever attempted to play anything he wrote. I loved his symphonies and concertos but never ventured much beyond them, certainly not into his solo piano music. As time passed, I listened less and less to Brahms and more and more to later composers like Poulenc, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev. But then I would hear a rendition of the slow movement from one of his concertos and be drawn back into his orbit. I also admired him for sticking to what I saw as his traditional tack despite the gales of Wagner blowing in the opposite direction. I applauded him for having the guts to be old-fashioned.

Brahms in 1853

Brahms in 1853

I no longer think of him as old-fashioned. His music is certainly melodic, but it’s troubled by the same sensibility I recognize as the modern world’s, the one I live in, which seems to have begun sometime in the late 19th century. You see that world in a novel like Perez-Galdos’s Fortunata and Jacinta, in the irreverence of Samuel Butler as well as in the “primitivism” of Le Sacre du Printemps. Brahms is no throw-back to the heyday of long-hair Romanticism. His music is complicated, not like Beethoven’s deeply complex but ultimately resolvable music but complicated with the unresolvable tensions of our modern age: a longing for harmony and order without religious faith, without a confidence in reason or a belief in unrelenting progress that sustained Western civilization before the debacle of 1914.

Brahms was a contemporary of Nietzsche, who coined the phrase “God is dead.” Nietzsche also declared philosophy dead, at least philosophy as it had been practised before him. He said it was just a form of autobiography. His own prescription for the way to move forward, the development of a new, superior kind of human being, may be as naif in its way as the contributions of Kant or Hegel, but his writings have struck a keynote for modern thought that has been re-articulated in each generation that followed.

There is something of the same zeitgeist in Brahms’s music, a despair partially redeemed by beauty and personal love and other simple human virtues. Brahms spent his Sundays conducting small groups of amateur singers, usually women, sometimes from the limb of a tree branch. Music was a way of life for him, not a religion or a soapbox from which to declare a new world order.

His devotion to the Schumanns is well known. But I think its significance for his art is not always understood. Brahms grew up poor, played in whorehouses to make a living in his youth, not unlike some of

the early jazz musicians. He came to know Robert and then Clara Wieck Schumann later. And the Schumanns were loving, generous people. Robert championed the young Chopin, writing reviews that declared the young Pole’s unique genius before the rest of Europe had discovered it. Chopin never returned the favor or, as far as I know, ever acknowledged it. But Schumann did not offer praise in the hope of reciprocation.

Clara Schumann in 1878

Clara Schumann in 1878

Unlike the general run of artists, he was not jealous of every other composer’s success. Music was the thing and, perhaps, like Jorge Luis Borges, he believed all musicians like all writers are really the same musician or the same writer.

Brahms’s love for Clara Schumann is as legendary as the theory, perhaps true, that they both still loved Robert so much after his early death following years of what today we call mental illness that they were unable to become lovers themselves, choosing instead to remain devoted friends. That kind of deep loyalty and personal devotion is rare in the great, though not so among the ordinary run of humans. We almost expect our famous artists and politicians to be self-serving bastards. When we find magnanimity in a Schumann or a Chekhov, another contemporary of Brahms, we treasure it.

I also like Brahms’s music because it’s the work of a grown-up. I find it hard to define what I mean by “grown-up,” but, like the man who didn’t know much about art but knew what he liked, I think I can recognize it. If nothing else, maturity means seeing the complexity of human existence and accepting it. Fanatics never grow up. They always see things one way. So do some artists. They sound a theme early on and work it unchanged for their entire career, sometimes to great success. Or, if they’re lucky, they die young and never reveal their stunted sensibility.

I spoke earlier of the adolescent quality of Chopin’s music. But his obsession with the violent and exaggerated emotions of youth yielded such great music there’s no point to caviling that he didn’t write anything of a different nature. It would be like denying Mozart his place in the musical pantheon because he didn’t produce in his thirties the music he would have written in his fifties had he lived.

Brahms did have that advantage — longevity. The piece I’ve been learning, the Sarabande in A Minor, is one of his last compositions. But I hear a maturing Brahms throughout his career. He incorporates what came before (listen to the fugal elements in the second sarabande in that two-composition set) but does so in a modern way that makes it seem natural to the music rather than just an homage, as is the case so often with “modern” composers who like to show off their knowledge of earlier musical forms without giving them any new meaning.

The Sarabande in A Minor is an elusive piece. Technically it’s not difficult. It’s the musical notation, especially the staccato markings in the first theme, that have had me lying awake at night (and first thing in the morning too) trying to make sense of them as I “played” the piece over and over in my head. Why staccato? Why staccato and forte at the end of that first theme? It seemed a hell of a way to write a “stately 3/4 time,” as one definition of sarabande has it.

Brahms in midcareer

Brahms in midcareer

But, that’s what I mean about Brahms using old musical forms in a modern way with a modern sensibility. This is a sarabande of a different sort, just as Beethoven’s 8th symphony is a kind of musical joke, as the conductor Lukas Foss once told an audience I was part of, but a very different kind of “joke” indeed. And Foss’s performance that night, one I’ve never heard duplicated, proved it true.

There is a temptation to violate the musical notation of the sarabande and play some of those staccato notes as eighth or even quarter notes. One of the videos by a professional on YouTube actually does so, and more, drawing out the final staccato note as if it were a whole note and then for good measure playing it piano even though the bar is marked forte. Another professional plays the staccato notes as written but without any musical feeling as if it were just a finger exercise or he had no clue to what the piece is about.

My point is that even in an apparently unambitious piece like this Brahms has created a work of art that is anything but uninteresting. He seems to be challenging the musical form as well as the performer to a kind of musical game of hide-and-seek. What am I up to? the music seems to say. Can you find out? Ready or not.

I decided after weeks of playing this sarabande that the “stately dance in 3/4 time” is essential information to understanding it. Without that underlying rhythm, however subtle, there is no sustaining infrastructure and hence no satisfying performance of the piece. As well, one must take the notation as it is written, not change it willy-nilly as that pianist on YouTube did. The proper way to perform Ravel’s La Valse is neither to deny its schmaltzy Straussian figures nor its sarcastic but tragic use of them. Both the Brahms sarabande and Ravel’s tone poem are of their time and retrospective. The older motifs are there for a purpose, not as mere regurgitations of an earlier musical form.

The rendering I’ve made available here at the risk of being pitied for my pianistic ineptness hopefully expresses something of the richness that is in this short piece. Please keep in mind I’m still very much a novice and self-taught. An alternative rendering I also recorded is less flawed but less expressive. This one is played on a 1922 Erard piano — actually a digital recreation of that Erard, recreated not by sampling but on the fly with remarkable software developed by a French company called Pianoteq. It was the sound of the Erard, more astringent than the Steinway on which I played the more correct version, that seemed to lead me into a deeper understanding of the music. The Erard seemed to blend so naturally with the content of the music, I seemed to be able to play the piece for the first time the way I had heard it previously only in my head. Tell me if you think I’ve managed to capture any of that richness in this recording.


February 9, 2012

A Sarabande and a Waltz: Krebs vs. Chopin

I have become enamored of Johann Ludwig Krebs ((1713 – 1780). It’s only in the last hundred years that he’s gotten some of the recognition he deserves. A protégé of Johann Sebastian Bach, he was reputed to be the better musician, but he did not prosper as his teacher did. For one stretch of his life he had, in fact, to work just for food for himself and his large family. And then, to add insult to injury, much of his composition, largely for organ, was attributed to Bach until the beginning of the 20th century. Talk about getting no respect.

The only pieces for piano keyboard (klavier) I have been able to find is a set of twelve pieces called Clavier-Uebung, IIe partie – Suite pour clavecin. A Prelude, Fugue a 3, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte, Minuet I, Minuet II, Scherzo, Polonoise, Cantabile and Gigue. Being still a rank beginner I am sticking with the least demanding of these, which are the sarabande, polonoise and cantabile.

Krebs is said to bridge the period between the Baroque, marked by the death of Bach, and the new music exemplified by Bach’s son and then by Mozart. These twelve are little masterpieces. But I have learned that trying to learn a piece I can’t stand to play 200 or 300 times is  hopeless. My brief piano experience is littered with pieces I’ve taken up that were either too ambitious or for which after a couple dozen run-throughs the thrill was gone. I sometimes think what it must be like for someone, a child especially, to be forced to practice meaningless scales or other exercises that have no emotional appeal. Although I’ve come across at least one accomplished pianist who confessed to loving scales, I suspect someone like him nowadays would get diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive and be medicated long before he became proficient enough at the keyboard to be called a talented musician.

Since I mostly play for my own enjoyment, with only enough pride involved to the point that someone hearing me does not wince and perhaps even takes some pleasure in what they hear, I concentrate on a handful of pieces I do not tire of playing, even though my progress is slow or sometimes hardly recognizable. The first I took on is a simplified version of  the Largo from Haendel’s Xerxes. This was a mistake. The Largo was not written for piano but for voice, and the version I play is itself bowdlerized. And yet I am now into the third year of playing this piece and am still surprised and moved by it.

The second piece I can play through, sometimes without more than one or two mistakes, is Chopin’s posthumous Waltz in A Minor. I marvel that people can play this piece rapidly, not just because I cannot play anything rapidly but because the music is so rich in every respect that to play it more than at a moderate speed seems sacrilegious. Artur  Rubenstein said that Chopin’s so-called posthumous works are actually the pieces  he did not consider good enough to publish in his lifetime. I can’t imagine, if this is true, what Chopin had in mind except that he found this piece to be so simple by comparison with his more demanding works that he thought it unworthy of him. In any case, I doubt I will ever tire of playing it, whether or not I ever learn to play it as well as it deserves.

And now I have Krebs. The Sarabande, the piece I’ve chosen to learn first, is deceptively simple — because there aren’t that many notes on the page, and there are few chords. Yet I’m laboring more with it than I did with either Haendel or the Chopin. Why is that? Is it a matter of my brain not being wired as well for this type of music as it is for the more romantic variety? I’m also experimenting at the moment with a Chopin polonaise, also relatively simple. I can’t help wondering why I can play and already remember chunks of this composition, which includes big chords, and have yet to master the basics of the simpler Sarabande, which I have played many more times.

So far, I don’t feel surfeited by  Herr Krebs, although I find it annoying that the Sarabande doesn’t seem to play itself the way Chopin’s waltz and polonaise do. I’ve given some thought to why this is so, apart from my own ineptitude. I’m assuming these 12 pieces were written for harpsichord. By the way he uses whole notes to bridge an entire bar or to remain sustained from one bar to the next, I suspect that he expected the keyboard player to do this without the use of a sustain pedal. Anyway, that’s the way I play it, a very different matter indeed from the way I play Chopin when, at least in my case, the pedal is more often down than up.

And yet it’s clear Krebs expects this music to sing. How do you make a harpsichord sing? I mean sing with my fingers the way it’s sings in my head when I’m out walking around the neighborhood. I understand Mozart had an instrument that allowed for some kind of sustaining tone, though not the pedal we are used to. Perhaps Krebs did as well, but, as I say, because of his notation I tend to doubt it.

Another “find” who’s staying quality is yet to be proved is Samuel Coleridge Taylor, a British composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His father was African, and Taylor took an interest in African and African-American music. He arranged a number of African pieces, and they sound remarkably bluesy to my ear. Apparently Taylor was extremely popular in Britain in his day. His The Song of Hiawatha was the most performed piece of its kind, running second only to Messiah. So far, his “The Stones Are Very Hard” provides an antidote to my sometimes frustrating efforts with Krebs’s Sarabande, and so, for now at least, Taylor’s welcome is far from worn-out.

December 30, 2011

More Chopin (More Chopin!)

I’m learning a new “easy” piece by Chopin, the Polonaise in G Minor, BI 1. I have little hope of ever advancing much beyond “easy” in Chopin (most of his work is rated at level 8 or 8+). I can play the Waltz in A Minor, op. posth. more or less straight through without too many mistakes, but I think I’ll have to learn to accept that I will rarely play anything without hitting some false notes. It’s not my fingers’ fault, it’s more a question of vapor-lock. But I can live with that if what I do play expresses the music and my own emotional response to it in a palpable way.

At first I thought playing so-called easy pieces by Chopin would mean playing something less than the real Chopin. I should’ve known better. No great artist is ever anything less than himself or herself, no matter what the medium or the occasion. Everything that is in the more difficult compositions like the Sonata in B Minor, op. 35 or the nocturnes is in these simpler pieces as well. Only, the thundering passages that require the use of both hands moving rapidly up or down, or down and up, the keyboard, in the case of the Polonaise in G Minor minor require the use of only one finger. But, oh, what that one finger can accomplish!

I hear in the Waltz in A Minor all the dread and beauty and anger that I hear in his more virtuosic compositions. After exploring the exquisite beauties and disappointments of what it means to be alive, it progresses to a harsh and despairing pronouncement about where life must inevitably lead, ending with a quarter-note two-tone chord that can only be interpreted as a shrug of disgust and angry resignation. A remarkable ending. And yet, I have not heard anyone play this piece without drawing out that final chord well beyond what the score indicates.

I play the waltz slowly, as I play most things, not entirely out of interpretive preference but because at this point it’s the only safe way for me to play anything. But I find it remarkable that all the other interpretations I have listened to play it rapidly, as if it were a bouncy little piece that Chopin tossed off and then put aside as hardly worth his attention. My saving grace is that it seems you can never play Chopin too slowly — I heard one of the premier pianists, it may have been Emil Gilels, remark that even the Études when played slowly are very beautiful. In any case, I can’t imagine playing the Waltz in A Minor much faster than I do play it without losing the emotional impact I described in the previous paragraph. And I’m not sure I would play it faster even if someone could show me that Chopin himself played it that way. I sometimes think a composer’s, like a writer’s, interpretation of his or her work should be regarded with the same skepticism as anyone else’s interpretation of it.

I have to confess that I only got up the nerve it requires to play this music, or any music, with this kind of expression from listening to the performances of Yulianna Avdeeva — although there was some encouragement to be got from a few of her predecessors, such as Alfred Cortot (1877-1962). If Ms. Avdeeva, or anyone else, could play the work of other composers for whom I feel merely a lukewarm response in the same revelatory way she does Chopin, I don’t doubt new musical worlds would be opened to me.

December 9, 2011

Chopin Documentary – The Women Behind The Music

A BBC film about the influence of opera, especially bel canto, on Chopin’s music. He was apparently enthralled by the great female vocalists of his day, and was perhaps in love with more than one of them. In any case, the documentary makes a good argument that he sought to incorporate that type of singing into his piano music.

The film is a bit too long, perhaps, and at times sentimental. After all, it’s the music that counts, not whether Chopin did or did not have a romance with the Swedish singer Jenny Lind.

The young pianist chosen to usher us through Chopin’s life does a creditable job but is no match for the deep understanding that informs the performances of a Yulianna Avdeeva. Likewise for the young singer who demonstrates the relevant vocal pieces.

Worth a watch, though, especially if, like myself, you already hear that singing quality in Chopin.

September 26, 2011

Lives of the Great Composers

Lives of the Great Composers
By Harold C. Schonberg

I rarely read biography, especially biographies of writers and other artists. I assume anything worth knowing about them is in their art, that the source of their creativity is a different self from the person the artists’ friends and family and public know. Also, artists are notoriously mistaken about themselves. You could even say they know themselves less well than does the average person who would no more think of writing a poem or a symphony than s/he would sign up to take a trip to the moon. Notorious bigots, if they happen to be good writers, create sympathetic characters whom by right they should be portraying in the worst light. Think Anthony Trollope’s MP in The Way We Live Now. And walking saints can produce pap and cant. But not always. Chekhov was saintly in some ways, and no one has matched him as a short story writer.

And then there’s the question of biography being just another form of fiction, or at least being as much about the author of the biography as about the subject.

Even so, I overcame my aversion, made an exception, as it were, for Harold C. Schonberg’s The Lives of the Great Composers and then for his The Lives of the Great Pianists. The reason is my schoolboy-like adoration of classical musicians. I know what neurotic jerks writers usually are (I’m one myself…a writer, I mean). But I put great composers and their interpreters high up on pedestals–or did until I read Mr. Schonberg’s books.

This “lives of” genre, of course, started with the medieval Lives of the Saints, and continued in the Renaissance with Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, which tells you something about how Western culture has progressed or a least changed its focus over the last thousand years. By the 19th century artists pretty much had a clear field to themselves, and they played it for all it was worth.

Not that the Bachs, Chopins and Prokofievs or Liszts, Hofmanns and Horowitzes come off badly in these books. If anything, Schonberg is an even bigger groupie than I am, though much better qualified to see his subjects’ moral and social warts. It’s not a matter of any one of the greats being brought down a peg or two by what he puts in these volumes but of a cumulative impression one is left with and the standards of value by which a modern musicologist like Schonberg (not to be confused, by the way, with the 20th century composer Arnold Schoenberg) evaluates them and their work.

I don’t know why I was so naïf as to think musicians were not, like fiction writers, subject to the academic bent for seeing art as a progressive historical process classifiable into schools and periods: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Post-Romantic, Modern, Post-Classical and God knows what else. Scholar’s minds work that way. But it never occurred to me that great musicians could fall for that kind of silliness. They create because they are moved to do so, and what comes out of them is the only thing possible. Or, so I had thought.

But they were in fact frequently all too conscious of the imperative to be innovative, if not always original. Truly great artists break the molds, create new forms, because the content of their art, what they must express, demands new forms. Beethoven didn’t have to think about in what ways he could show up Haydn and out-Mozart Mozart. He spent a few years under the influence of those two, but then found his own voice, matching it to the powerful creation inside him. He didn’t innovate for the sake of innovation. The content of his art dictated the form and the expression.

But others were more self-conscious. Brahms was looked down on as old-fashioned by the school that saw Wagner as the future of music, and then of course Wagner suffered the same fate, until by the time we reach the twentieth century composers would rather die than be thought anything less than avant garde. In consequence we got a dogged academic adherence to innovation for its own sake (and, perhaps, more tellingly, combined with mediocrity) that has driven otherwise sympathetic listeners in our own time to rock and jazz (which have their own issues with innovation for innovation’s sake).

The backbiting that went on in this fight to be at the head of the pack is worthy of a high school locker room. It’s embarrassing to read some of the things composers said about each other, and no doubt still do. I suppose they did so partly to keep their stock up in their own estimations. Unless they were fools they knew what Bach or Beethoven meant to music no matter how they tried to trash them with glib asides (they probably stayed up nights thinking up those nasty one-liners). What’s more disconcerting is the way they worried about their place at the cutting edge of their art. God forbid they should write something that was behind the times. Ever onward. The past, if not prologue, is something to be spurned. Who can write as if there had been no Wagner? Or no Stravinsky? Well, Brahms could, for one. And Rachmaninoff for another.

We’ve seen the same thing in literature. Who could expect to be taken seriously as a serious writer unless s/he wrote in a post-Joycean style? Not Saul Bellow. Not John Updike. And then who could expect to get the lit-crit establishment’s seal of approval if they ignored the tenets of Post-Modernism? How many first-rate talents have succumbed to this orthodoxy and diminished their talents rather than end up as, God forbid, “popular” writers?

Walter Kaufmann, best known as the translator of Frederic Nietzsche, pointed out that all the great philosophers were what today would be considered amateurs. Maybe something similar could be said about great writers and composers. The best educated in their craft are self-educated, i.e. they learn by experiencing others’ art. Frequently they are mentored by another great talent. But with the ascendance of the academy and its minions we have just the opposite situation: a cadre of mediocrities mass-produced and as conformist in their thinking and creations as any mainline clergyman.

It’s in the nature of the academy to foster conformity and uniformity, even when it professes to want the opposite. The firestorm of petty invective and personal insult that met B. R. Myers’s A Reader’s Manifesto a few years back showed just how sensitive and insecure the establishment is to any questioning of its authority. The Inquisition was liberal-minded by comparison.

Schonberg seems surprisingly deaf to the diktats of the establishment of which he is of course a part. But I still say “surprisingly,” because the man is nothing if not a passionate lover of music–all music, it seems, though he is lukewarm about some composers I would think he would be enthusiastic about–Prokofiev, for example, who managed to write fabulous music despite the towering presence of Stravinsky. And how dare he! (I mean Schonberg) leave out George Gershwin in a book like this, while including, not to mention–not to mention–infinitely less talented contemporary composers.

Even so, The Lives of the Composers is a valuable book, as is The Lives of the Great Pianists, if only as an introduction to the subject, or subjects. A decent bibliography of related readings is included; musicians then as now are a garrulous and scribbling lot.