Sunday, April 23, 2017

Much More is Composed than is Performed

   I’ve been reading, with no particular goal in mind, biographies of composers. So far I’ve read full-length books about Beethoven, Chopin and Schubert and the New Grove pieces about Bartok and Stravinsky, focused more on music than on life. And I’m now partway into a recent biography of Debussy. I learned a great deal about these composers that I had not known, though how much I will remember, given my enfeebled brain, is another question. In this blog post, however, I want to make what is essentially a single point.
   Works by each of these composers are regularly performed by individual musicians and by orchestras and chamber ensembles of every kind. They don’t need to be “discovered;” they have long since been pulled into the mainstream. Look at the programs of a hundred performers, individuals or ensembles, and you’ll find music by the above group on a great many of them.
   And yet, . . . And yet, you will find the list of works played with some regularity, works, as we say, rather vaguely, “in the repertory,” to be only a fraction of the music they actually wrote—a small fraction, actually. It’s not even clear that what we get to hear is uniformly the best that the composer has created (I leave that “best” undefined), though, with perhaps some exceptions, it is not wacky either. But there is a huge amount of music composed by these same eminences that is not performed.
   Now some comments. It is the case that for all successful artists, some of their works become popular and others don’t or lag behind. But there is one uneliminable fact that makes musical compositions different. Written novels or poems, assuming they are published, can be read and appreciated (or not) by everyone who has a few bucks to buy a copy or has access to a decent library.  Visual works of art—paintings and sculptures, mostly—are each unique and must be chased after, wherever they are. A great many of these also exist in reproductions, good, bad, and indifferent—though only a selection.
   The roads to neither of these art forms are perfect or even smooth; many are beset with obstacles. But when you get there, you got there, mediated—and hence to various degrees distorted in the case of reproductions of the visual arts. But if you can read and if you have eyes to see you have access to what the artists have produced.
   It is not that (relatively) simple with musical compositions. For all but competent musicians, mediation is needed to convert a score to be found on paper into sounds heard by the ear. For some works only a single performer is needed, most often a pianist. But for a huge number of compositions anything from several players are called for to a large number of players to actualize notes into sounds. Only then does a composition become available to listeners who are only potential listeners, but not themselves musicians.
   Then there are if course recordings and for quite some years now, the internet, especially YouTube. A cursory record, however, reveals that the vast majority of what is in that way available for listening are works already in the repertory. What is there to be found, rather, are multiple performances of those works. (Some time ago I determined that there were over one hundred recordings of the Mozart Requiem. That kind of fecundity only makes available different performances of compositions, without extending the repertory that is ready to be heard.  

   Accordingly,  for ordinary listeners, even serious ones, there are a great number of compositions that are not “available.” In discussions of arts this fact tends not to be noted. But it matters—a lot.

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Cheerful Evening in Vienna; Who Are They?
  “January 13, 1827. We went to the “Anker,” where Spaun, Enderes, Gahy and Schober had foregathered, and also Derffel . . . . After we had been there for a long time and at last considered it time to break up, we went on this glorious moonlight night to Bogner’s coffee house, where we danced and engaged in all manner of childish pranks. From there we danced over to the Stock-am-Eisen Square round the Stefan’s Cathedral, which we gazed at. Then into the Goldschmiedgasse and made out demonstration at that coffee house, also at the Peter and the coffee house on the Graben. Then we went to Geringeres coffee house in the Kohlmarkt, where we would push Spaun in, as he was always averse to late coffee house going. But to our surprise he went in as meekly as a lamb when we pushed him. We smoked and talked merrily. Finally we parted and went home at 12:30.” (Franz von Hartmann’s Diary)

   Who are the Schuberteans? A group of  companions of what was still a young Franz in Vienna. He wrote a lot of music during those years, composed a new song in instances—about six hundred altogether. He died at the age of 31. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Chopin in Paris

More Chopin  
I turn to a few more general remarks about the Gavoty Chopin biography. While I can’t make any comparative judgments, I think of his Chopin as a most respectable biographical effort. This author was trained as a musician and has a respectable record as an organist, a series of recordings included. While his Chopin book has some quirks that you don’t find in a more academically grounded biography, it casts a wide net of contemporary letters and newspaper articles which very much seem to do justice to the subject of his book.
   What hints that the author is not just a worker in the book-writing vintage, are the comments, small and not intrusive—indeed, mostly confined to footnotes—scattered throughout the volume. They show Gavoty to be knowledgeable and alert. As I said earlier, I’m not a Chopin buff, but I found this account of his life most interesting. It was a good time for Chopin to be in Paris and to get a sense of that was like in a period when apparently everyone lived there.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Chopin and Liszt


   After finishing the Beethoven biography, I immediately started a life of Chopin. No particular reason: (daughter) Ellie had the book and asked if I were interested. I was, but for quite different reasons from the Beethoven volume. I am not a Chopin buff, for better or for worse. My tastes are much more Germanic, with its pronounced structural features, brought to light in longer works and much less in what a musical uncle of mine called (of another composer) Ohrenschmalz. But I was interested in Chopin’s personal life, partly in  Poland, but mostly in Paris at the beginning of the 19th century. The book, Chopin by Bernard Gavoty, is very rewarding in that regard and lavishes much attention to the Paris of Chopin’s days there.

   I’m not yet done with this volume and will probably want to say more about it later, but I now want to make some remarks just about the relationship of Chopin to Franz Liszt. Given my ignorance, I did not even know that those two piano giants knew each other, not to mention that they overlapped in Paris for quite a few years. They were friendly and much respected each other. It is made very clear in the book that while each greatly admired the other’s playing, they had very different styles, with Chopin much less flamboyant and virtuosic than Liszt. There is a brief account of a wonderful incident when the lights were shut on an upscale gathering. The piano was played. There was great surprise that the pianist turned out to be Liszt—who had most successfully performed in the quieter more subtle style of Chopin. It is unlikely that Chopin could have—or tried—to play being Liszt.   He politely but firmly protested when Liszt added an embellishment when performing one of his pieces.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Beethoven Again

More About Beethoven
   I have now finished Swafford’s major Beethoven biography; it covers a lot of ground—and pages. I need hardly say that the book tells me an immense amount about Beethoven and his world that I had not known. While I’ve heard a lot of his music, it turns out to be a much smaller fraction of his oeuvre than I had thought. He may not have been as prolific as Mozart or Haydn, but into many of his works he seemed to put in more time and effort—notes, sketches, drafts—than either of the masters he followed, though he was also capable of tossing off a piece with great rapidity.
   What are some of the things that were more or less new to me? While I was aware that Beethoven was an accomplished pianist, I was not aware that he was a virtuoso, prized by a broad public for his performances and especially by the cognoscenti, many of them major and minor nobility. Various pianists make their appearance in Vienna, then the musical capital of the world, and he certainly held his own in their company.
   Then, I was only vaguely aware of the practice of improvisation. Beethoven was clearly a master at that art. It “entertained” large audiences and specific listeners and clearly played a significant role in his composing. That activity supplemented, so to speak, the notes he constantly took of ideas that came to his head and that he quickly wrote down in his sketchbooks that seemed to be always with him.
   Swafford makes copious use of published reviews of Beethoven concerts. I’m impressed by their insightfulness, especially with a composer who deviated further and further from the modes of his forebears, Mozart and Haydn. Many of these critics were more adventurous than Olin Downes, the chief NYTimes critic of the forties. My “favorite” review of his (those are scare quotes) went on at great length about a performance of Brahms’s first symphony and concluded with this sentence: “And after the intermission, Mr. Mitropolis conducted Mahler’s First Symphony.” Mahler, like many composers of the 20th century, was not on his list of approved composers.
   Then there are the letters, lots of them, quoted in this biography. Interestingly by many in the composer’s circle, but above all by Ludwig himself. Their styles vary, of course, but it is worth noting that even though, people, including Beethoven, got to say what they had to say, even if they were more flowery, less succinct than has since become common practice.
   Then there is his nephew Karl, born not long before his father, Ludwig’s brother, died. Ludwig becomes Karl’s guardian, squabbling with the boy’s mother of whom he disapproves; he thinks of himself as Karl’s father. It’s quite a saga which ends when Karl joins the army not long before Ludwig’s death.
  Most of the book is of course about the music, with a great many works extensively discussed. Many in considerable detail, section by section, with the surprisingly many key changes noted. If there were “world enough and time,” one should read these descriptions while listening to recordings of the music. I got the most out of the account of the Ninth Symphony, because I have more of it in my head, having several times sung it as a member of the chorus. But long before then, while in high school, I bought a copy of the miniature score, to follow one of my first records—they were then 78 rpms—conducted by my namesake, Felix Weingartner.
   I need hardly say that the book depicts in great detail how “original” a character Ludwig was or, more frankly, how cantankerous. He quarreled a lot and apologized almost as much. It was probably a good thing that he never married any of the women with whom he interacted.
   Finally a small bit of information that was news to me. While in German, the “von” before a last name indicates some degree of nobility, the Dutch “van” is more mundane and just means “from.” Perhaps the family originated in the Belgian village of Beethoven.   

Sunday, April 2, 2017


I'm not done yet with that Beethoven biography--which is very long and very interesting.  I've made some notes and expect to post them, but don't expect a review. So, for the first time, a non-substantive blog post. Shows that I'm human.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Beethoven's Birthplace

Beethoven’s Bonn

  When I  was in high school, I read a number of biographies of composers, including Robert Haven Schauffler’s Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music. I don’t remember many specifics about the book, but I am quite sure that it had very little about what is to be found in my current reading about Beethoven,  Jan Swafford’s more recent monumental biogra;phy, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph.
   Here I just want to make a few comments about Bonn, where Ludwig was born in 1770 into a musical family, with both his grandfather and father professional musicians. Not distinguished ones, mind you. Bonn, then was ruled by a succession of aristocrats, who fostered the cultivation of music, a major and competitive “trade,” with  the Elector, Max Franz, becoming a patron of young Ludwig.      

    He financed Ludwig’s first trip to Vienna and thus helped to introduce him to the city of his future. With the “leveling” effect of the spillover of the French Revolution, Bonn’s short time in the cultural sun came to an end, not to see stardom again—if that what it was—as the capital of West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Still, Bonn’s most significant claim to fame is as the birthplace of Beethoven, one of the three greatest composers ever. I’ll let you guess—not difficult—who are the other two.