Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Quart into a pint pot

In Search of Beethoven, seen on hard seats in Ross-on-Wye parish church hall, lasts 2 hr 19 min, and covers LvB’s life and fifty of his major works. So, typically, four bars of the Spring Sonata fades to voiceover. But good stuff from the pianists.

Ronald Brautigan. (1) Plays two bars of dense complexity LvB showed to teacher Haydn. “I can’t play that, I just can’t play that.”
(2) “Why is Für Elise so popular?” Plays first line. “It’s not one of his best pieces. You play it two or three times and it gets irritating.”
Emmanuel Ax. (1) “Beethoven is very good at repeating single notes.” Plays same note six times and, lo! the first movement of the Fourth Concerto is triggered in your mind.
(2) Plays a complicated descending cadenza from a middle sonata. “But that wasn’t how Beethoven marked the fingering. It was supposed to be played by the right hand alone. No pianist can do that. Why did he write it that way? Because he could play it with one hand and to get up the noses of those who couldn’t.”
Paul Lewis. Detail in late sonata, possibly Hammerklavier. “Here’s a 27-note (ie, quite short) passage. You might be tempted to play it as a phrase.” Does so; sounds lovely. “But no. Look here on the score. A four-note phrase within those 27 notes.” Plays it; quite different. “It’s meant to hint at fatigue. Very hard to play.”

Barrett Bonden. The movie ends with the Grosse Fuge string quartet. This demanding but deeply satisfying work was the seventh or eighth LP I ever bought. As I played it my brother (a Charlie Parker fan) sat on the stairs and listened. “What was that?” he asked, astonished, afterwards

Novel progress 10/3/10. Ch. 16: 5525 words. Chs. 1 - 15: 67,628 words. Comments: Hatch emerges.


Relucent Reader said...

I admire your musical knowledge, you are familiar with that language. I had never heard of Richard Brautigan the pianer player: I had heard of the novelist of that name, not the musician.
I enjoy music,largely classical, but from a more ignorant 'o that sounds nice' level. I read 'The Rest is Noise' and enjoyed the anecdotes and the connections between often disparate genres. It was the jargon, the musical shop talk ( "a glissando, followed by a tri-tone"or some such) which brought me up short in reading it.
You make the LvB's music more intriguing ('by the right hand alone'), I knew 'he was a titan, wrestling with the gods', but the score notations, hidden from this layest of musical laymen, are unknown territory.
Thank you.

marja-leena said...

The film sounds wonderful, along with the interesting stories - will have to try to see it! Like Relucent, I admire your knowledge, being a little deficient myself in the language, even though I used to play the piano and do love classical music.
This reminds me of our now-neglected huge though not quite complete collection of LPs and book, the Beethoven Bicentennial Edition (1970!) by Deutche Grammophon. We still have our record player but in a rather inaccessible location that we keep meaning to make workable again. It's too good a collection to give up.

Julia said...

I love that string quartet, and it was one of my favorite and first LPs too. I always found him very hard to play as he doesn't write idiomatically for instruments the way other greats do. It's really all about the music in his head and you figure out how to play it or miss out. Listening to his music well played though is one of the treats of the world.

Barrett Bonden said...

All: Sorry, Ronald not Richard Brautigan, now changed. A Dutch pianist who (rather unusually these days) plays a fortepiano as well as a concert grand.

RR: It's very kind of you to impute such knowledge to me but I am virtually musically illiterate. The post was written purely from memory (a very dangerous practice for any journalist, even an ex- like me) and as a result I got Brautigan's first name wrong and, even more irritating, I couldn't remember the sonata numbers used in the quotes. However it seems that ignorance of technical musical matters didn't stop either of us enjoying "The rest is noise", the best account I have read of how music evolved from the late-Romantic era into the atonal period we are presently enjoying with various degrees of success. The film is maddening in that it attempts too much and one is often reduced to a few bars of this and that. On the other hand it too shows musical evolution, in this case of a single composer. One interviewee (it may have been a pianist but I forget now) said something that best characterises Beethoven: there is evolution all the way through his life and he never wrote the same piece twice. This cannot be said of the other titans, even Mozart.

M-L: Again I must insist, I really know almost nothing about the technicalities of music and Julia (see below) would confirm this if she wasn't too polite. We've had the discussion about LPs before: compared with CDs they have too many disadvantages, all of which combine to ensure you don't play them. This is why I bit the bullet and transferred my somewhat reduced collection of about 220 LPs, scratches and all, into CDs. This would require time you do not have since LPs can only be played in realtime (135 hours in my case) during the transfer and you have to be on hand just in case a defect causes one groove to repeat itself. And, alas, the LPs have almost no value if you take them to the Goodwill.

Julia: As you can see, I have kicked any suggestions that I am a musicologist into touch, knowing it was possible you would see this post. My interest in the Grosse Fuge came from non-musical books I read back in the fifties. Every literary intellectual was agreed that it was a difficult but worthwhile work; in fact I didn't even find it that hard. Ah, you make my heart ache with that "doesn't write idiomatically". I gobble up such matters when they are explained at the keyboard (An activity perfect for TV) as with the Paul Lewis quote. I know you're horribly busy but...

Julia said...

When a piece is written idiomatically, the music falls under your fingers easily and naturally, making the most of your instrument. I think Mozart wrote for violin beautifully in this way; his music feels like it was written in the natural voice of the instrument (hence idiomatic).

Beethoven, at least for the violin, definitely doesn't do that.

Barrett Bonden said...

Julia: I was hinting sneakily at a possible post but never mind. Thanks for the clarification.

One of the two greatest books about music (he also wrote the other) for someone with only a glancing knowledge of the technicalities is “Critical entertainments” by Charles Rosen. In the following passage, albeit about piano playing, he seems to touch on what you are describing.

“The awkwardness of Brahms’s writing (for piano) is rarely mentioned… nevertheless it is fundamental and clearly deliberate. Brahms demonstrated a predilection for pianistic devices that cruelly stretch the hands or make exorbitant demands on the weakest finger. The best example is his frequent employment of a trill for the fourth and fifth fingers with an added octave for the thumb.(Cites opening movement of the first concerto)… the last (trill) in bar 116 – the octave D with the finger on an E flat – is wickedly difficult for the average hand as it traps the fourth finger between two black keys and makes the rapidity and sonority of the trill questionable. (Explains how Schnabel got round this “in Lisztian fashion”)…. But it was precisely to avoid the Lisztian sonority that B asked for the less effective trills which integrate more easily with the musical texture… the Lisztian version is easy to execute and it sounds difficult; B prefers a greater difficulty, partially concealed in order to avoid the appearance of virtuosity.”

If you haven’t seen this book, steal it (It’s damned expensive). Or if the opportunity doesn’t arise I’ll break the habit of a lifetime and lend you my copy

Hattie said...

The thing about Beethoven is you'll be listening along and suddenly you can't believe your ears. I don't think anyone can explain it.
A friend of mine was married to the other Brautigan for a while and says he was a lousy fellow.

Rouchswalwe said...

Just this past summer, I discovered Bernstein's recording of the 9th at the Vienna State Opera in 1979. I wish I could tell you why I enjoy it as I do (I cannot, having just squeaked by in music theory class in high school). I only know that I am grateful for audio technology.

Barrett Bonden said...

Hattie: It's often the case with writers.

RW (zS): In the film I mention the Ninth is seen as a "flawed" but since LvB was trying to break all previous definitions of what constitutes a symphony he's forgiven. It is a bit weird: we get all the tumultuous opening major-key stuff about joy, then when we get to seid umschlungen.. it suddenly gets all gloomy and minor key.

Plutarch said...

It was you who introduced meto the Grosse Fuge, which you warned me would be difficult at first. It is now probably my favourite piece of music.

Avus said...

Sounds a fascinating film and well worth the sit on the hard church pews.
What a composer! A main serving of the "Fifth", followed by "Für Elise” as an "amuse bouche" makes a wonderful evening meal.

Barrett Bonden said...

Plutarch: My bad deeds I remember, my good ones I forget. This is news to me.

Avus: A bit too once-over-lightly as it had to be. But I'm always encouraged when a musician is asked to explain things and arrives with his instrument.

Julia said...

Critical Entertainments is now added to our shopping list (it isn't available from thebookdepository.co.uk or it would be on its way). We have several of Charles Rosen's books, but not that one.

Which leads me to the question - what is the second greatest book about music for non-technicians?

Barrett Bonden said...

Julia: Piano Notes - The Hidden World of the Pianist. Published by Allen Lane, a Penguin Books imprint.

The reason Critical Entertainments may not be generally available is because it is published by Harvard University Press. Often university books are sold direct and not through conventional book sources.