Posts tagged ‘music’

August 13, 2012

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March 24, 2012

“Mirror, Mirror…”

Ever since I first heard Lydia Mordkovitch’s recording of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto a few years back I’ve been thinking about the role of the performer, their function as mediator between me and the music itself (if there is such a thing). I had not previously known that concerto, and my first reaction was that it was lightweight, even frivolous. But a second and then a third hearing convinced me otherwise. Now I place it among the most moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

But after a couple more hearings I became curious about how another performer, Anne Sophie Mutter, would perform the piece. So, I decided to have a listen.  After just a few minutes, I turned it off. What I was hearing was not the Prokofiev concerto. It sounded so different from the Mordkovitch version, it seemed to be another composition entirely.

What I’ve been wondering since is why. I consider Mutter to be the greatest living violinist. At the time, I was unfamiliar with Mordkovitch beyond that one performance. I had experienced the genius that Mutter brought to Mozart and Brahms, had heard her evolution from wunderkind to mature artist — and beyond. I had thought her performance could only enhance what I had heard in Mordkovitch’s. Instead, it seemed to violate it.

Was I only reacting as I might to any alternative rendering of the performance that had first revealed the music to me? That first hearing of a composition tends to imprint itself on us so strongly that the music and the “interpretation” are virtually indistinguishable. I have nevertheless recognized and appreciated performances that are far superior to my initial experience of a composition, even when that second revelation occurs years or even decades later. A first kiss is a first kiss, but there may well be other passions, perhaps just as or even more memorable.

I can’t speak with any real authority about the work of either Mordkovitch or Mutter, but my experience of their separate performances in this one instance raised a question that has outlived my initial reactions: To what extent is a performer a vehicle, conduit or, as I think of it, a clear pane of glass through which we experience the music, and to what extent are they a kind of second composer whose performance is itself a creation as original as a musical composition?

My thinking on this has evolved. At first I thought I saw a clear distinction: Mordkovitch was that clear pane of glass, an unobtrusive aperture into the essence of Prokofiev’s music; Mutter (and her fellows) a kind of composer in her own right, her performance as much a creation as the composition she’s playing, each new rendering an opus, as it were, just as all of a composer’s compositions can be said to be one single composition in various forms and stages of development.

But nothing is ever so clear-cut, or remains so unless we are so wedded to an idea that we cannot bear to see it overturned or even significantly altered. I have heard recordings that seem to be near-perfect representations of the experience of a concert hall. I know now those recordings are the result of great artistry on the part of sound engineers. Is there an artistry on the part of the performer that corresponds to the skill of those engineers, involving an almost saintlike sublimation of personal ego for the sake of letting the music shine through unimpeded by “interpretation”? Or, does this apparent simplicity involve, as does all art, a great deal of artifice and delusion, the way good prose that seems simple and straightforward is the result of many hours of work on the part of the writer to achieve that “effect.”

There is room certainly for both types of musicians, and I’m not sure we should value one over the other. Ultimately, there may be more of this in the ear and mind of the listener than I have yet explored. But the question, however naïve or tentative, enriches for me music’s, indeed all of art’s, limitless possibilities.

(Read a great piece relevant to these thoughts at Harold Knight’s blog on the occasion of J.S. Bach’s recent birthday and why it is “the most important day of the year.” )

December 8, 2011

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” ~Beethoven

“Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.” ~Sergei Rachmaninoff

(With thanks to Janet Song.)

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.

September 15, 2011

Chopin Come Alive

Welcome to my music blog.

Despite the title, pianomusicman, I’ll be talking about any kind of music that tickles my fancy, on any kind of instrument.

I’ve had a love affair with music for as long as I’ve been alive, but it was only well into adulthood that I realized how deep the feelings went. Although I grew up in a musical environment and even briefly, all too briefly, took up a musical instrument in my childhood, I had not been conscious of how profoundly I feel music until fairly recently. Of course, none of us realizes how different our feelings may be from those of other people and assume what we feel, they feel and vice a versa. If I had to do it over again, though, and knew about myself what I know now, things would have been different. But, isn’t that true for most everybody?

I’ve only recently started to read about music and musicians, partly no doubt as a consequence of my taking up the piano. So, I’ll have more to say about various composers and performers on that account as well as from my own personal experience, impressions which go back now many decades.

I hope you’ll find all or at least some of my musings interesting and share your own thoughts with me.

But I don’t want to conclude this first posting without mentioning my latest and, at least as performers go, perhaps my greatest musical love: Yulianna Avdeeva, winner of last year’s (2010) Chopin Competition in Warsaw.  If you haven’t heard or heard of her, I suggest you go to YouTube and check out the videos available of her performance in Warsaw:

This young woman made Chopin come alive for me. Till then he was in the grips of what has always sounded to my ears as ‪a kind of bloodless salon playing, no matter how skillful or subtle. Through her hands I hear what the music is really about: the tragedy and beauty that is life, and death.

Partly as a result of these recent readings (which I used to avoid, on the theory that anything I need to know about a composer I can find in his or her music), I’ve been listening to various pianists (God bless YouTube) from the present day going all the way back to those who were born deep in the 19th century like Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns. For the first time, I’ve begun to realize that there are styles and even fads to performance playing just as much as there are in literature or anything else (my own profession is fiction writing). This, rather late, realization explains a great deal about my lack of response to most 20th-century pianists.

I suspect what Ms. Avdeeva is doing is re-creating a kind of playing that was more typical, in some ways, of the performers of the 19th century. They apparently went overboard (she does not, though some critics seem to think she does), behaving more like our present day rock stars and getting much the same response from their audiences of screaming, and sometimes fainting, fans. All that disappeared in the 20th century (not that star performers didn’t still have groupies, viz. Horowitz), when technique, fidelity to the printed notes and other post-Romantic attitudes produced what sounds to my ear too much of a cookie-cutter approach.

Some sort of reformation of 19th-century excess was certainly in order. Performers were getting away with musical murder, even while virtuosic geniuses arose them. But a great deal, to my way of thinking, or hearing, was lost. Avdeeva’s playing may indicate a return to that earlier kind of very expressive playing, without the flimflam and hype that accompanied it. If so, I say three cheers.