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Sunday, March 27, 2005
  Phantasiestücke Op. 12, Nos.5: In der Nacht
Robert Shumann
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 9 Tracks 15-17

Before I was married, Sujean, now my wife, and I often lived in different towns. I would often fall asleep thinking of flying over the states between us like one those floating persons in a painting by Chagall. Though Robert had the story of aquatic Leander in mind, his experience was not so different. This piece revives the memory of those fantasies. Robert's life is as compelling, if not more, than any fiction. Writers inspired by his story have a difficult time producing anything as precise and effective as this short piano piece. This may be one of many reasons Jessica Duchen finds composer novels not so satisfying.

Other than the fine music he left behind, the compelling feature of Mr. Schumann's life, to me, is that he had it within his grasp to make a good living and felt the need to avoid doing so. In his place and time there was a strong market for lousy piano pieces which he could have churned out by the dozens. Instead, with no sense of profit, he rallied friends against the popularity of such pieces and put enormous amounts of energy into developing a musical sensitivity that would be repulsed by a contrary aesthetic and anything short of his level of refinement. I like to think, though I may be flattering myself, that were I in his place I would have done the same.

What I like about this fantasy is the moment before the recapitulation at track 17. Here Schumann is slowing down the musical narration to create that feeling of suspense before we return to familiar themes. Though, functionally, we only need some ambiguous harmonies and dwindling rhythms, Schumann's instinct for good voice leading and deft harmonic changes adds a voice-like quality to a writing tailored for keyboard technique.

By the way, congratulations to the Fredösphere for his recent world premiere. It is great to know that the bassoon can still get to people. 
Friday, March 25, 2005
  Phantasiestücke Op. 12, Nos.4: Grillen
Robert Shumann (1810-1856)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 9 Tracks 12-14

Mit Humor

Yesterday, I started by reading a post on the Fredösphere regarding the loves of Olivier Messiaen. I agree entirely with the value Mr. Himebaugh gives to biographical information and his post lingered in my mind as I went to The Rest is Noise. There, Alex Ross' comments on the downtowner's 12-tone disquisition offered a refreshing understanding of Schoenberg's historical context. Reading Professor Gann's weighty post I was reminded of my teenage adoration of the Second Viennese School. Though they are ghosts, they were rock stars to me. And even now I love to cruse around Over The Rhine in my Mazda Protégé listening to the complete works of Webern in such a way that all the pedestrians with their hip-hop wonder, "Was ist das?" (The drive takes about three hours and forty-five minutes.)

Important to my understanding of Schoenberg is that he was Jewish and he could and did say of his musical development that it was a vital step in the direction of German music. To one, such as myself, a few generations and a continent apart, Schoenberg was a guide in learning his culture's mad history and, with horror, he held my attention, he discouraged the temptation to reject Wagner and others, and showed me that, in spite of everything, one might live a good number of years and love it.

My sense is that when Schoenberg emigrated to the states it was no longer possible to talk about the supremacy of this or that music. There were simply, suddenly, too many musics to consider. Though the Davidsbündler would be excited to see how much internet ink is being spilled on the topic of good music, the breadth of this discussion, the number of different kinds of music would make their argument with Liszt seem merely one opinion in many. Inside the whims of this thick, low register waltz is a deep, religious love of the music of J.S. Bach as a foundation of the construction of music. And all of us now yearn to replace that love that was traded for a diversity of styles. 
Wednesday, March 23, 2005
  Call me Rip van Wrinkle. The orchestra I play for changed its rehearsal cycle just slightly and, I hope, just once for last week's concert. The change put all the rehearsals during the week and the drive up and down to Springfield just about wore me out. For the days since, if I haven't been teaching or eating I have been sleeping. I think I am awake now.

Worth mentioning on the Shakespearean concert was William Walton's Hamlet and Ophelia arranged by Muir Mathieson. I especially liked the string writing which, starting from the low strings, gradually pushed toward a beautiful wailing in the violins that somehow reminded me of Hildegard von Bingen.

Of course, the main feature on the concert was Felix Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream. I enjoyed the singers. Who can go wrong with a woman's chorus? Were I programing for a regional orchestra like ours, however, I might be tempted to avoid Mendelssohn altogether. The lightness of his orchestration and the precision in which he writes gives us so little room for error. I am glad to have played the piece nonetheless.

Now, trip away, make no stay, meet me all after I've done some more teaching, eating, and sleeping and it is again the break of day. 
Saturday, March 12, 2005
  Thank you, Helen.

Helen Radice's post on the translator's art has been in my thoughts this week as I have moved my attention from Mendelssohn to Schumann. These guys--soon to be joined by Field, Chopin, Liszt, Schubert, and Clara Schumann--have contributed the most instrument-specific music in this anthology so far. And it seems, as I gradually make my way through this scholarly collection of music, that this anthology is presenting our tradition as one that has moved from a predominately vocal practice to a predominately instrumental one. And that the turning point in this tradition happened when a young girl named Amaryllis turned down a young man's offers.

I had thought that Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words would make lousy harp pieces only because of how specifically they were written for piano technique. After reading Helen's post it seems that might not be true (even for the Presto Op. 67, No. 4 in C?). It is the intimacy of the piano, the memory of hearing this music on the piano at home that makes Felix's instrumental choice significant. The piano is symbolic of the times and places in which Mendelssohn stood and his songs, through the piano, reach for us back toward those moments that seemed so incidental when someone no history book has remembered, perhaps one of our great-grand parents, listened to this music played for the first time.

That being said, I would like to hear the Songs Without Words without piano. 
Monday, March 07, 2005
  Lieder ohne Worte a) Op. 67, No. 4 in C Major
Felix Mendelssohn
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 9 Tracks 9-11

The comparison may be tenuous and, perhaps, even invidious but I am reminded of the Rimsky-Korsakov Bumblebee when I hear this Presto of Mendelssohn's. Listener's of the Green Hornet radio drama may be cursed to think of that flight whenever speedy sixteenth notes appear. This is a considerable handicap. One might say that an over fondness of crime drama may cause a listener to miss the tune.

Whereas our famous Russian sent the chromatic swirls around the room, Mendelssohn placed them in the background. As Nikolay must have appreciated, Mendelssohn and other nineteenth century pianists achieved a remarkable depth of field not seen or heard in previous literature. Unlike an Alberti bass accompaniment, the supporting notes are not set apart by register as much by rhythm and dynamic. And remarkably, the accompaniment, thus liberated, explores the keyboard without upstaging the song.

The title Mr. Mendelssohn settled on, "Songs Without Words" is so appealing because, I believe, in spite of our reference books, we do not really know what makes a song a song. And we suspect the accompaniment these Germans perfected should be considered a crucial ingredient of song making.

Question for Helen Radice: It is my guess that, as beautiful as the "Songs Without Words" are, these pieces would make lousy harp transcriptions. Am I wrong and do harp players playing piano music favor music from the early piano music? 
Thursday, March 03, 2005
  Lieder ohne Worte, a) Op. 85, No. 4 in D Major
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 9 Tracks 7-8

I thought of Felix recently while reading about the Forbidden Planet, an article found via the Fredösphere. I saw that pretty fun film when I was not quite a teenager and a few words from the grumpy Dr. Morbius made an impression on me as an aspiring musician. There is a scene where the not-so-good Doctor explains how smart the Krell were in their heyday. To impress his guests he plays a short tape of electronic music and says something to the effect that the Krell were so smart the music they enjoyed sounds incomprehensible to us.

Mendelssohn comes to mind because I think of him as a vastly intelligent person who strove to make music comprehensible. Were he a music advisor for the script writers of that film he might have suggested that the Krell music be superior because of a gentleness in line or clarity of expression. However, in the context of this anthology, Mendelssohn appears to have contributed to the increase of complexity in music. His music, and I think piano music from this period in general, is so much like the Italian madrigals of the late sixteenth century in that it explores the potential of expressing a very specific emotional moment quickly. And as those madrigal composers were virtuosos of subtly in choir writing, Mendelssohn and his colleagues were the same for piano writing.

This singable song without words has an elegant downward bend. As the listener traversers these few bars, the harmony counters that motion by pushing upward in half steps. Then it relaxes back to where we started. And the listener is left with the keen memory of someone playing the piano in another room of a house that stood more than a century ago. 
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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