March 11, 2018

My Mozart puzzle...

If I don't practice one day, I know it. Two days, the critics know it. Three days, the public knows it.

In his book Mozart: A Life, Maynard Solomon gives the following description of Mozart's typical daily routine:

During his early years in Vienna, Mozart would customarily arise at six o'clock, be at his desk by seven, and compose until nine or ten, when he would make the rounds of his pupils, giving lessons until one o'clock.  "Then I lunch," he reported to his sister...  Returning to his room after several hours of social visits, he would again compose ... "I often go on writing until one - and am up again at six." ... With variations, that was Mozart's daily routine as he described it in his letters home... [On some] days the only time he had for composing was in the evenings, "and of that I can never be sure, as I am often asked to perform at concerts." (p.309).

With Mozart's time divided between composing, teaching, socializing, and frequent concert performances, the above description of his daily routine suggests that Mozart had no time to practice at all, or at least that he did not practice regularly enough to warrant mentioning practice among his daily activities.  This I find very hard to believe, but since I have no compelling evidence to the contrary, the best I can do is offer a few rather inclusive speculations on this matter.

1.  Solomon's description is incomplete and ignores evidence of regular practice.
If this is true, perhaps more knowledgeable readers will point me to the overlooked evidence.  (It is also possible that Solomon mentions practice elsewhere in his book and I simply missed it because I have read some chapters rather superficially.  There is, however, no entry for Mozart's 'practice' in the book's index.)

2.  Mozart's neuro-muscular endowment was so special that he did not need regular practice to give performances compatible with his reputation as a great pianist of his time.
This probably would make Mozart an outright miracle as an instrumentalist, and I don't believe in miracles.  All great concert pianists seem to have slaved at the keyboard to keep their neuro-muscular apparatus in top shape (and those who didn't - e.g., Schnabel, Cortot - payed for their neglect of practice with technically substandard or downright disastrous performances).  Horowitz, for example, liked to have people think that he never practiced, but in fact was witnessed (by the American pianist Leonid Hambro) to practice certain passages a hundred times or more in one sitting.  Rachmaninov - often mentioned as one of the greatest technicians in history - was reported (by the American pianist Abram Chasins) to have spent mind-numbing hours on practicing relatively simple pieces at one-third tempo. Mozart may not have needed regular practice to keep his own music in memory, but I doubt he could maintain the purely mechanical aspects of his piano playing in top condition without giving his fingers some kind of regular workouts.

3.  Mozart's piano music is simple enough to be played well by a skilled pianist without the benefit of regular practice.
I don't find this convincing because what makes a piece of piano music difficult to play depends in good part on the pianist's training.  Perhaps Mozart's music is simple for pianists who grew up on the Chopin etudes, but I doubt Mozart's training as an instrumentalist involved purely technical challenges appreciably beyond posed by his own compositions.  After all, Mozart himself thought that his two piano concertos from 1784 (K.450 and K.451) would "make the performer sweat"; and two centuries later these concertos were still described by the pianist and teacher David Dubal as "very tricky technically."
     It is also worth mentioning that Mozart's seemingly simple piano sonata K.576 is described in The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia as being "technically beyond all but the most experienced performer."  This description was seconded by the late pianist Charles Rosen who wrote that he had heard this sonata messed up in performances by such distinguished pianists as Walter Gieseking and Solomon.

4.  What Mozart played in concerts were simplified versions of the music that came down to us in the form of finished scores.
It is known that Mozart often performed the solo part of his piano concertos from memory because the solo part had not been fully written down in time for the concert.  Conceivably such partly improvised performances omitted technical challenges found in the finished scores, allowing Mozart to give polished performances despite lack of regular practice.  But then I don't know how this can be reconciled with Mozart's bragging that his concertos would "make the performer sweat."

5.  Mozart's public concerts contained enough wrong or missed notes, but in those days being considered a great pianist did not require giving note-perfect performances.
I do not know enough to evaluate the likelihood of this being true, except that Mozart's often expressed pride in his abilities as a musician does not seem compatible with technically sloppy performances.

This is about all I could think of on the question of why Solomon's description of a typical day in Mozart's life makes no mention of piano practice.  Which I'm sure isn't much since my knowledge of Mozart-related biographical and historical trivia is superficial at best.  Perhaps readers better acquainted with the seemingly endless list of Mozart-related books, monographs, and scholarly articles will be able to help me settle this issue.

March 4, 2018

Modernism as an attitude problem

Mr. Carter never has made concessions to his listeners. ... It will take many hearings for the relationships in the score to assert themselves.

So there you have it: An innovative composer's pursuit of his artistic vision is an attitude problem.  The composer is described as one who refuses to "make concessions to his listeners", who is "uncompromising", who expects his listeners do heavy mental work involved in keeping track of a bewilderingly rapid succession of seemingly unrelated sound events.  Put in a euphemism-free way, the composer is an arrogant motherfucker who pursues his aesthetic ideals at the expense of his listeners' desire for pleasantly comfortable aural experiences after a long and busy day at the office (or at the country club).

February 3, 2018

When the Russians were especially enthusiastic...

Roger Sessions and Jean Martinon

The Russians I met ... were familiar with some American scores, and were especially enthusiastic about those of [Roger] Sessions.

These days no-one is especially enthusiastic about the symphonies of Roger Sessions.  Not even a little enthusiastic.  Too abstruse for some, too old-fashioned for others, Sessions' symphonies have been confined for decades to the dark and musty basement of music history where they pass time swapping tales of former glory with the symphonies of Dittersdorf, Spohr, Ries, Onslow, Kalliwoda, Wilms, Reinecke, Rubinstein, and other now almost completely forgotten composers.

January 7, 2018

Querying the dead

Listening to a Webern score without being able to read it must be rather like studying a great  architectural mastepiece without having access to a ground plan.  ...  The new [music], when it eschews any links with the past, can be absorbed only by those who are able to hear the music and read the score (the aural equivalent of the architect's blueprint).
Why should listening to a piece of art music be like studying a piece of architecture (or anything else)? Why shouldn’t it be instead like taking a tour of a palace (castle, cathedral)? 
     Does one have to study the shooting script and the production designer’s storyboard in order to “absorb” a film of Eisenstein, Godard, or Tarkovsky?  Or read the source code of computer programs used to produce some of the art works at MOMA in order to “absorb” such works?  

What exactly does the ability to read a score amount to? 
     When in 1854 the conductor Hans von Bülow sent Richard Wagner some scores to review, Wagner responded with a letter in which he admitted his borderline incompetence (if not impotence) as a score reader:
     ...[H]ow am I to get any clear idea of these [scores]? You know how abominably I play the piano, and that I cannot master anything by that means unless I can get a clear conception [of the music] beforehand.  What I get from a simple reading [of the score] is not enough ... to arrive at an idea of a composition.[2]
     Did Wagner have the ability to read a score?

December 21, 2017

It was a mad, mad, mad world....

Madness, for the Romantic artist ... promised not only different insights but also a different logic.

Writing about Robert Schumann, Charles Rosen tells us that

Schumann was haunted from the age of seventeen by the fear of going mad.  Only at the end of his short life were these fears realized.  In 1854 ... Schumann voluntarily incarcerated himself in an insane asylum.*

Rosen's chronology is correct with respect to Schumann the man, but not Schumann the composer.  The latter should have committed himself to an asylum a couple of years earlier when he displayed undeniable symptoms of musical lunacy by composing piano accompaniment to Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin BWV 1001- 1006.  Had Schumann produced this composition a few decades later, it could have been considered a musical counterpart of Eugene Bataille's  La Joconde fumant le pipe or Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. in the visual arts, making Schumann (rather than Eric Satie) the father of musical dadaism.  But composed in the middle of the nineteenth century, this work of Schumann has always struck me as by far the most shocking (and, because it was Schumann, the saddest) case of madness from the Romantic period in the history of music.

Or so I thought until a few days ago when, to my great surprise, I came across a case of nineteenth century musical madness arguably more pathological than Schumann's.

November 29, 2017

A friend of a friend 4

Penderecki's most impressive score, To the Victims of Hiroshima: Threnody, for fifty-two strings, calls for a host of new methods of playing these instruments ... [and] ... the extremely violent, almost "anti-artistic" expression of the music justifies the means.
ELLIOTT CARTER, writing in 1963 about new music in Europe, Collected Essays and Lectures 1937-1995, U. of Rochester Press, p.36.

I must have heard at least a dozen concert recordings of Penderecki's Threnody (1960), and all but one presented this piece as a shrill Modernist tantrum of a young musical dissident behind the Iron Curtain.  Heard in such performances, the music amounts to little more than an echo of Xenakis' Metastaseis (1954), making it easy to think that its continuing survival on the fringes of the orchestral repertoire is due solely to its contrived anti-American title.
    Which is what I used to think before I discovered how poignant, even sensuous this music can sound when its avant-garde stylistic devices (swooping glissandi, tone clusters, behind the bridge bowing, etc.) are treated as background technical means to emotionally significant musical ends.  I owe this discovery to the performance of Threnody by the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien under the impressively versatile Cornelius Meister, recorded in concert on 3 November 2016.