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Monday, April 25, 2005
  Gretchen am Spinnrade, D. 118
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 9 Track 25-29

It is tempting to think of our Romantic composers dying Romantic deaths. John Field died far from home in Moscow at the age of fifty five in 1837. Frail from overwork and weakened by the loss of his family, Mendelssohn died at the age of thirty-eight ten year later. Chopin, as he had requested, was cut open to make sure he was dead before being buried. He was given an enormous funeral in 1849 having died at the age of thirty-nine. Robert Schumann threw himself into the Rhine river and then spend two years in an asylum to die there at the age of forty-six in 1856. All of this following Beethoven shaking his fists at a bolt of lightening as he lay dying at the age of fifty-seven in 1827.

Yet Mr. Schubert, very Romantic, died of typhoid fever. Though it was tragic for his friends to lose such a talent at such a young age, thirty-one, his death had nothing to do with his work. He had not stressed himself from travel and drink, nor overwork, had no postmortem fears we know of nor a national funeral, and he probably did not shake his fists at lightening bolts. He worked consistently from nine to two and produced a remarkable collection of scores. Where his personal life and death were unremarkable and perhaps unimportant to him, his creative life achieved a conquest of death.

To my ears, Schubert is inescapably linked to the imposing genius of Beethoven. Though worthy of a listen in his own right, Mr. Schubert's music reminds us of what else was going on in the town that housed that awesome iconoclast with the messy hair. 
Monday, April 18, 2005
  Trois études de concert, No. 3: Un sospiro (A Sigh)
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 9 Track 20-24

Whenever I hear mention of Franz Liszt I think of the poem The New Jules Verne in which Joesph Brodsky described a ship as having a "Franz Liszt" profile.

I would like to dislike Maestro Liszt. After listening to Chopin, Liszt's personality seems overblown. However, of the composers that most heavily influenced his formative years--Berlioz, Paganini, and Chopin--it is Chopin, an opposite of Liszt, that may have saved Liszt from being little more than unhealthy fluff. And, unlike many talented pianists today, Liszt played Chopin's tunes, as Chopin played them, not as an end but as a revelation of the possibility of writing more and different music.

As Heather points out in her fantastic fictional breakfast scene (thanks to Robert Gable for the link), many a modern pianist can play Chopin's music really well and yet, unlike Liszt, they seem to feel no inspiration to compose something new. Perhaps it is because the piano, as a genre, is no longer young as it was under Franz's fingers. And, perhaps, being a composer in our modern times is a little confusing. But what impresses me about Liszt is not his virtuosity but his willingness to let the content of his music decide the form. And this approach, so influential in the music to come after him, is, to my ears, a part of his attitude toward music as a constant stream of ideas rather than a collection of immovable masterpieces to be admired from a distance. 
Friday, April 15, 2005
  Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2
Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 9 Track 19

Perhaps it is the music teacher in me, but what I find most interesting in Chopin is the influence his music teachers had on him. I like to think that Adalbert Zywny and Józef Elsner saw Chopin's unique potential early and were empathetic enough to handle him with the appropriate amounts of sternness and openness. Chopin learned a strong respect for the music of Bach and Mozart that was balanced with a strong respect for his own music. Though Professor Elsner had his ambitions for young Chopin, he wanted Chopin to compose symphonies (the same, strange ambition Clara had for her husband), he knew to allow Chopin to follow what interested Chopin. It is to Elsner's credit that Chopin's orchestral writing is not as great as his piano music.

It is unkind that Mr. Chopin's Nocturne would follow Mr. Field's in this anthology. Although Mr. Field's piece could have been a template for Op. 9, No. 2, as far as I am aware, Chopin arrived at this breakthrough style independent of Field's efforts. And back to back, Chopin's Nocturne makes Field's Nocturne seem hollow. Though the listener enjoyed the first piece, upon hearing the first notes of this one, the listener experiences a revelation and almost says, "Where have you been all my life?"

The secret to the high quality of Mr. Chopin's piano writing is the same discipline that informs the music of Robert Schumann. And that is a constant awareness of voice leading in spite of the freedom allowed by the keyboard. It is an instinct learned from J.S. Bach. 
Friday, April 01, 2005
  Nocturne in A Major, No.8
John Field (1782-1837)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 9 Track 18

I have never read a novel by Daniel Steel and she is not on my reading list, yet the life of John Field impresses me as a story she could have written. Starting out in Ireland, Mr. Field's life seems to make a line, with loops and detours, across an early nineteenth century Europe into Russia. He serves an abusive mentor named Clementi, has an illegitimate son and a legitimate son, a divorce, his career is touched by alcoholism, he has enemies and friends, dies before he is sixty and his music is admired for generations after his life.

In spite of all these appealing attributes, Mr. Field, though respected, fades in our memory as our attention is consistently drawn to his contemporaries. And his innovations are best displayed in the works of composers other than himself.

Considering his light touch both on our memory and the ivories, it is surprising how radical Mr. Field's Nocturne is in the context of this anthology. As this anthology starts with a song soon followed by yards of Gregorian Chant, all of the innovations up until now have been focused on how the melody is presented. None of them seemed to have addressed the basics of a good tune: it goes up and comes down, moves mostly by step, and maintains an even rate of speed. Mr. Field, without calling attention to himself, challenges these basics. And one can hear, in his melodies, that the inspiration comes from the voice and instrumental technique equally. 
In January 2004 I starting writing an opinion for each selection in the Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music. Now, more than a year later, I am almost finished. Soon, I will have an archive full of opinions on the music we so carelessly call "classical." And no one can stop me.

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Director of the Contemporary Performer's Workshop... Music Teacher for St. Aloysius Gonzaga School... Principal 'Cellist of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra... Composer

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