Joshua Bell Tour Trauma: Meatball Edition

Where have I been? What has happened to me? To explain, I might just as well begin with a particularly terrible bowl of Spaghetti and Meatballs in Akron, Ohio.

It was my very first meal of a tour with Joshua Bell, a violinist you may have heard of. Now, a pianist has a function, which is to play too loud while waving his/her head around expressively. SpaghettiAndMeatballs And pasta has a function too: it’s supposed to serve as a canvas or frame for delicious sauce. But this flaccid frame simply refused to cooperate. It resented sharing its space. Nothing would stick to it. Therefore the sauce (which was not red, but a surly pinkish-brown) oozed forlornly about the corners of the takeout container, commenting wryly on the whiteness of its companion, as if to say “look, just look at what I have to deal with!,” and refusing to fulfill its remaining function, i.e., taste. Liquid flavorless recalcitrance! And the meatballs. As you gauged their mealiness in your mouth you felt you could count, like rings on trees, the number of times they had been frozen and irradiated.

Three different ingredients–sauce, pasta, meatball–and three different functions… How crucial that they act upon each other, how crucial that they profoundly communicate with one another!

I meditated painfully on this Threeness of Spaghetti and Meatballs in the cinderblock cage of my dressing room. It seemed a woeful injustice to begin the tour with such a terrible meal, and I’ll admit, I was still dwelling on it as I walked onstage, even as I sat down at the piano. I belched quietly into the pre-concert expectant silence … obviously, the three elements had not properly merged even in the accommodating cavern of my stomach. And so it happened–such is the power of fate!–that my mind was darkly attuned to failures of threesomes as Joshua and I began to play (for the first time) a work in … you guessed it … three profoundly interacting parts.

That no-name violinist played a melody:


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And I played two separate streams of accompaniment, one in the right hand, one in the left:


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The right hand is a river of sixteenth notes, a middleman … filling in the chord, “saucing” the melody. While the left hand, a slower stream of eighth notes, reveals a starchy bass-line. I couldn’t decide at the moment if the melody was the meatball; anyway, it didn’t seem central to my interpretation.

What defines the melody is partly the rocking, halting rhythm of the Siciliano: long and short notes in alternation. Also: the melody has a tendency to stop and start, to pause on pivot notes, before moving on. The two accompanying ingredients are utterly different: they do not halt or alternate; they are inexorable, they are continuous. Playing there onstage, in my peculiar food-furious state, I felt this as a kind of culinary contrast: the intermittent, impulsive melody set in relief against the knowing stream of harmony, like two different “philosophical flavors.”

There is no reason to mix pasta with sauce that won’t cling to it: it’s a category error, a basic mistake. There is (similarly) no reason to make melodies with arbitrary bass-lines; I mean, why write (tonal) music if the relation between your melody and your bass is going to be uninteresting? A lot of composers write music where the bass-lines ooze sorrowfully around the corners of their containers, looking reproachfully at the melody. A crucial element in musical composition is to create between these voices a clinging of some kind, some reluctance to let go, some salivation, some moment that lingers in the mouth.

The clinging of the melody to the bass is astoundingly beautiful in this piece (Bach BWV 1017). The melody is built more or less on a skeleton of chords …


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… It “likes” to arpeggiate through chords. But the bass has an opposed tendency: it wants to descend by step, in a long line, through the C minor scale …


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This process–chords versus scales–is set in motion from the very beginning:


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The melody outlines the chord of C minor, but even by the second beat the bass has moved on to B-flat. Superimpose B-flat on a C minor chord, and you get, of course:


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A wonderful chord, briefly glimpsed. This sonority, where a chord is “infected” with the next lower root, is (for me, for me!) the secret soul of this movement. Many of the chords in this Largo are haunted by this restlessness of their roots–while the melody clings to the past, the bass moves on. The resulting sevenths pop up throughout, dissonant beauties of passing. They keep appearing, persistently, but always briefly! They owe their existence to motion, to the tendency of the bass to descend, and therefore they don’t linger.

Bach, as chef, understands that if you take a melody tasting of triads and put it on top of a bass that descends linearly you get these particularly delicious sonorities. This is the reason he has put these ingredients together: to wring these beauties out of them. If you fail to taste them while you play, it’s your loss (and of course the audience’s).

I will give you a favorite example. At one point the violin and keyboard decide they are going to cadence together on E-flat major …


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… but it only lasts for one half of a measure, for one beat. The accompaniment immediately moves on: again, the bass has a thing for moving. The violin’s still playing E-flat, holding onto it, optimistically or stubbornly. The bass moves down to D: and so the keyboard plays the dominant of C minor against E-flat: a wonderful, grinding dissonance. [When people say they can’t stand “dissonant music,” of course you can tell them they’re idiots, they actually LOVE dissonant music, because without dissonance Bach (for example) would have nothing to say whatsoever.]

At the beginning of the measure, all three parts are in beautiful E-flat major. By the downbeat of the next measure, the E-flat has been “re-thought” as a part of C minor. But I like the beat in-between: when the E-flat doesn’t know yet that it has been rethought. Where the melody’s and harmony’s tendencies clash, where the parts diverge, you get a kind of blurred double image of past and future. If you agree with me that Bach is a particularly profound essayist in the nature of time, you might agree with this leap of assocation: that dissonant beat is the present. It is neither here nor there. In its in-between-ness, it is the most beautiful, tastable moment of all. Why is it always the moment you want to hold onto, that is passing by?

That’s why it sometimes seems to me that music theory is one of the most despicable disciplines there is, because you’d probably label the bass of that magical chord a “passing tone,” and once you’ve labeled it a passing tone it’s a bit deflating … doink!, it goes in the bin with all the other passing tones. Somewhat like passing through Trenton on your way to Philadelphia: unremarkable. In the same way, once you call something Spaghetti and Meatballs, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ve understood anything about pasta, or that you should serve it to paying customers, or why a pianist might eat such a ridiculous thing before a concert, or any of the related questions that might come up. But Bach had that way of using passing tones so that you could meditate on the passing-ness of things, what it is to pass, to move on, to leave beauties behind … of labeling the labels with meaning, breathing life back into the most basic, even the most unassuming, words.

Does this explain why I haven’t been blogging?

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Whose Brahms?

Recently, I came across an essay entitled Whose Brahms Is It Anyway? Puzzling: I assumed Brahms, that most organic of composers, had been purchased by Monsanto long ago.

This essay has an alarming thesis: that the Brahms B-flat Concerto has been getting longer. The author (Walter Frisch) does not rely upon anecdotal evidence; he supplies a carefully researched graph which would seem to place the issue beyond a doubt:

What could this graph mean? I phoned up a reliable cross-section of experts: arts administrators, conductors, concert-hall caterers, etc. Conferring with them, I came up with the following rough calculations.

For each 5 minutes of length added to Brahms, Op. 83, you can expect:

— intermission restroom lines will grow by 8-10%;
— coughing between movements will grow by 25%;
— coughing during most beautiful part of slow movement explodes by a staggering 43%;
— hairlines of male audience members will recede by .0000003%, but if you figure in compound interest, this could really add up;

Surely there are other effects we cannot yet envision. And we have to assume, in the absence of contrary evidence, that these problems are ongoing. The following graph shows the slowing of the concerto to date, as documented by Frisch and his crack team of CD collectors around the world, followed by a projection into the future:


As you can see, the model suggests that a recording of Brahms Op. 83 made in 2072 would last 3 hours and 25 minutes! In minutes adjusted for inflation, that is 142% longer than the most tedious performance of the Goldberg Variations to date.

Here is a sample passage from Brahms Op. 83 as it might be recorded in 2043, as rendered by a hired stunt artist:

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Astounding. As you can hear, this could cause untold suffering; our children’s children would bear the brunt … I needed no more convincing. I immediately convened a conference in Copenhagen, but reconsidered; Amsterdam might be more Andante-friendly. I applied for government grants to pay for my accommodations and expenses. Obviously, also, some lobbyists would be required to argue for the interests of faster Brahms in Congress.

Just as I was tucking into my room service at the Four Seasons Amsterdam, I received a rather disturbing phone call. Apparently someone hacked into the email server at the Music Department of Columbia University, and forwarded thousands of emails to the Marlboro Music Festival, which historically has had an interest in slowing the pace of Brahms. With their vast financial resources, they hired a team of interns and unearthed the following:

FROM: Walter Frisch <[email protected]>
TO: Richard Taruskin <[email protected]>
SUBJECT: Brahms Op. 83

I think I’ve just completed Robert’s (Mann) trick of adding in the real tempos to each series for the last 20 years (from 1981 onward) and from 1961 for Maazel’s to hide the decline.


FROM: Lawrence Kramer <[email protected]>
TO: Walter Frisch <[email protected]>

I do now wish I’d never sent them the data after Hepokoski’s FOIA request. Uncertainty in turntable calibrations adjusted, corrections made and I think it’s solid. But there is a relatively small number of people who don’t or won’t ‘get it’ … Meanwhile, who let Taruskin rewrite the whole History of Western Music? I mean, at least it wasn’t Susan McClary.

Between the backbiting and the tempo uncertainties … well, before long there was a full-blown media storm, a battle between slowing deniers and alarmists. Sarah Palin addressed this BrahmsGate (for so it was now called) in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post:

The BrahmsGate emails reveal what the American public has long suspected, that the slowing of Brahms Op. 83 is not nearly as certain as some elite musicologists have banded together to suggest. If those musicologists think they can attack our way of life by making our Andantes flow more freely, they have no idea the world of hurt they’re in for.

Even if Brahms is slowing, who’s to say it’s caused by human activities?

Call me crazy, but I’m old enough to remember that in the 70s, various musicologists were warning us that Brahms Op. 83 was actually getting faster. It’s possible that Brahms Op. 83 is slowing because of cyclical, natural variations in tempo. For instance, variations in sunspot activity …

In the final analysis, there are so many better ways to deal with this slowing trend, aside from the drastic, unreasonable solution of playing the piece faster.

I was still sure that Brahms was slowing–after all, there was the graph!–but began to have second thoughts as to the cause. Although the presence of a thoughtful, nuanced expert like Sarah Palin seemed to discourage further inquiry, perhaps I could humbly contribute something to the scientific literature. To create an objective, controlled experiment I decided to deal with an unrelated work: Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. This would free me from any emotional baggage or bias as relating to Brahms Op. 83, and yet would speak to the reliability of durational data, from which a series of conferences might more reasonably address the question of what length really is, how it might be measured, and eventually set a groundwork for understanding how long Brahms Op. 83 should be.

The premise of my experiment was to measure my perceived desired tempo (PDT) for the opening of Beethoven First Piano Concerto at various times of day, and under the influence of certain key circumstances.

first attempt: quarter = 144 (midday, 3 hours after coffee, just before lunch)

We could call this a “baseline” tempo. Addicted to this data gathering (this science stuff is fun!) I began sampling my own PDT’s wildly:

before coffee: quarter = 138
after coffee: quarter = 160
before sex or equivalent* quarter = 154
after sex or equivalent* quarter = 126
after one beer quarter = 148
after two beers quarter = 122-164
after three beers (unmeasurable data)
after watching an episode of Real Housewives of Orange County quarter = 232
after shopping at Fairway quarter = 187
(* for instance, a really good muffin)

A graph of this data proved elusive, and inconclusive; there are just too many factors at play!

And now it became clear to me, that tempo is more dangerous than an illusion, it is a kind of myth promulgated by all sorts of fascist types in order to destroy the natural and beautiful cycles of PDT that are native to the human freedom instinct. The next time a conductor asks me “why are you moving so much faster here?,” referring to some passage X of a concerto, I will simply say “natural variability of sunspots,” and when the conductor says “that’s ridiculous,” I will say “you can’t prove to me it’s NOT sunspots.” I’m sure this will go over very well.

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Schubert’s Killer Abs

At least Hester Prynne got an “A” for her adultery. I’ve searched the alphabet up and down, and I can’t find a letter to testify to my shame. Of all the sinful confessions of Think Denk, ranging from lonely Cheetos to promiscuous metaphors, this is the darkest and deepest. Here goes:

        Monday night, I went to see Twilight: New Moon. For the second time.

The first time, it was a rainy afternoon. It was the second of three Beethoven Concerto performances in Naples, Florida; the beach was a dismal grey ringed by reproachful mangroves; I couldn’t bear to haunt my hotel room a moment longer, staring at the dumb mauve art. HBO was playing “The Making of Braveheart;” meanwhile, The Grand Piano Foyer, a floor below me, contained “Dinning [sic] Divas and their Darling Dogs” …


… and I had barely recovered from the Urology Specialist Holiday Party the night before. So you see, I had no choice, I had to flee the Hilton and its Grilled Chicken Caesars. A matter of life and death. A total vroom situation.

When I am driven by such desperation to The Movies, I try to selectively turn off my ears, at least the parts that feel pain when terrible music is happening. If only my new ear hair trimmer had such a function! As you can imagine, most of the music of Twilight is a spool of new age melancholy-lite with interchangeable aspartame chords and a spectacular disregard for monotony and cliché: the sort of thing you run across 12-year-old girls playing, to express themselves, on upright pianos in junior high chorus rooms after the last tater tots have been shoved down the last pimply gullet of the last smug bully before the last bus creaks out of the parking lot, sending wheezes of diesel sadness into the dusk as yet another chalky day of teaching scrawls to an end. Here’s an example:

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… you get the idea. I was just settling in with my movie nachos, just getting used to this aural upholstery–anything that does not kill you, etc. etc.–when (suddenly!) a few notes reminded me that there might be a better world. Bella gets knocked against a wall, her arm’s bleeding …


… and in a flash Dr. Cullen–a vampire who has virtuously pulled back his fake hair and steeled himself to resist his blood-urge–dismisses his weaker, ravenous vampire relatives, and prepares to stitch up her gaping wound. As he stitches, we hear:

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This was no nacho hallucination! There really WAS a Schubert song lurking in this teen vampire romance … and not just Joe Schubert Song, but a setting of one of the greatest Goethe poems. But why this song? And why Schubert? My mind immediately and shamelessly ran after musicological ramifications: “Schubert is sucking at the neck of the subdominant, to demonstrate vis-a-vis the fangs of his modal mixture the inadequacy of conventional polarities of dominance” … (Susan McClary, eat your heart out!) Though I dismissed the notion of a hidden musicological agenda I suddenly wondered how many vampires take refuge in the musicology faculties of our nation’s universities.

This was one of these moments where Popular Culture decides for a capricious instant that Hundreds Of Years Of The Western Canon are temporarily useful for appropriation; it does classical music a huge favor by Noticing It. Lovers of classical music are supposed to beam and pant like a petted dog, grateful for any and all attention. Wag wag, woof woof, good boy, go play in your cute tuxedo now! Classical music often serves an iconic, representative, dubiously honorable purpose in popular film, and this instance of classical quotation–besides reminding me what a steaming load of crapola I had been listening to previously–reminded me very much of the famous scene in The Silence of the Lambs, where Hannibal Lecter brutally murders and partly eats his two guards to the strains of the Goldberg Variations.


In both these scenes, classical music becomes an emblem of distance and detachment. Cullen is looking directly upon blood without giving in to his hunger; he is practicing Zen-like separation from desire. Lecter has a very different detachment, the detachment required to kill perfectly, ruthlessly, without regret or remorse; his is the detachment, the disconnect, the absence of “normal” emotion which marks sociopathy.

In both scenes, the music is ironic. It’s effective in a way that horrific or disturbing, i.e. “appropriate” music would not be. Its meaning lies in its otherness … While Lecter commits one of man’s darkest taboos (cannibalism), behind him rings the decorum and organization of Bach, with its peerless canons and schemes and rules; the Goldbergs whisper to our ears all the connotation and comfort of human Enlightenment, while the Dark Ages scream at our eyes from the screen. Cullen is stitching a raw wound; he fills a bowl full of blood … The camera lingers on both, in the way we imagine Cullen’s eyes unconsciously might; meanwhile the song proceeds in uncanny calm, a calm which feels strange against our sense of a repressed murderousness. The calm is a classical music calm, an alien calm, it evokes the price and pressure of Cullen’s self-repression. I have noticed often that the forces of Hollywood cannot use classical music to express “normal” emotions, but only extremes, only things that must be seen weirdly, in reverse.

In both scenes, blood. Both Lecter and Cullen traffic in blood, and their bloodiest scenes bleed classical music. Yes, we can say, the director is suggesting that classical music is “beauty” against which the horrors of bloodlust are seen more starkly. But if the music is supposed to be the opposite of the bloody scene, isn’t the implication somehow that the beauty of classical music is “bloodless”? Lecter is a soulless monster, and he loves Bach; Cullen is a soulless vampire, who uses Schubert to calm himself while he repairs a wound. Always soulless; always other; always anachronistic; classical music is the preference of monsters. I can see how the age of the music connects to the immortality of the vampire, I can see how the Bach connects to Lecter’s genius, but why must classical music be the language of monsters, of the fringe?

Schubert’s not distant, not alien, not detached, he’s full-blooded and alive, he’s home for me, he’s the emotional trailer park where I live, don’t you get that?, don’t you hear it’s so beautiful?, so much more intensely felt than this movie?, I wanted to scream all through the room, to the mainly 50-something women who had come alone in their Lexuses through the Florida rain to the mildewed and neglected theatre. No, no, so beautiful, I thought as Schubert’s echoes dopplered away and we returned to the morose mediocrity of the main score. I was like Bella abandoned by Edward, soundtrack bereft.

The movie proceeded like so many–a series of proppings. Yes, there’s no real plot structure but OK in the weak moments prop it up with effects. When the effects don’t work OK in the weak moments prop it up with shirtless men. The shirtless men cannot remotely act but OK in the weak moments prop it up with music, or blood. I felt a certain pity for each sadly inadequate piece of the puzzle. In fact, there could be no simpler, greater rebuke to this film than the Goethe text for the Schubert song:

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

[Over all the hilltops
there is rest,
In all the treetops
you hear
hardly a breath;
The birds are silent in the forest.
Only wait, soon
you too shall rest.]

A haiku house without seams, strong beyond strong. In the music of these words, there is nothing to be propped … each rhyme coolly and clearly clicks into the joints of the meaning. I’m shivering here in my kitchen just reading through it, and not just because the window’s open. You pity no word in it, no matter how humble, each simple word lives. At its foundation we find the strongest word, an untranslatable word, “Ruh,” meaning rest or calm or quiet or silence or peace. First we see “Ruh” spread over the hilltops … it’s a landscape-word. At the end “Ruh” has become a verb (“ruhest du auch”), and in this paradoxical transformation (rest acts!) the word itself becomes a poem.

A poem that appears to be painting a landscape for us turns on its heels, turns on us, and intimates our death. It does this through one other very strong word, the last word, the pillar at the other end of the arch: “auch.” How is it possible that a simple notion–you too–becomes so charged? (Don’t even get me started on how “auch” rhymes with “Hauch,” breath.) But it is, of course: all our lives we are dealing with the consequences of you too. Yes life is a story of I’m me yielding to you too, and this hint of death rings against the restfulness of the scene; the two notions are in perfect, compensatory conflict–a conflict which is from another perspective just a total, complex understanding of a single thing. Death and the peaceful landscape are hung, in suspension, against each other. The birds are in the middle of the arch, refusing to sing.

The only things in the movie that seemed as well-constructed as this poem were Taylor Lautner’s abs:


… and these elicited an appreciative “Damn!” from more than one corner of the theatre. (Schubert got no damns. Nor Goethe.) Each pair of muscles like a rhyme. The next day, after hanging up with my new personal trainer, I wondered: why are poems better than abs? Between lateral crunches, I mused: aren’t abs just poems of the stomach? But it seemed to me great poems last longer than abs. And they generally don’t require trips to the gym. As I puréed my second protein shake, it struck me, I should phone some poets, do they have phones? Did Goethe go to the gym? Maybe during his Italian Journeys? So many imponderables! But maybe there’s only one truly unanswerable question: why did I go back for a second viewing?

It was for the Schubert, I swear.

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Chopin’s for Dummies

When I mention to people I’ve played Chopin on my recitals lately, I tend to get a curious reaction–a slightly sour look with a parental, passive-aggressive question mark swirling around in it. Oh, dear, really? From their oblique remarks I glean an implication: why would you play Chopin, since you are a supposedly thinking person (i.e. “Think Denk”) and Chopin, well, dot dot dot. I’ll admit it, I often feel vaguely insulted by these reactions, both for my sake and for Chopin’s. It’s a duet of outrage. One part of me thinks I’m certainly dumb enough to play Chopin!, while another impotently huffs, Chopin is not dumb, and you’re a boorish nincompoop. Over martinis, I consider what level of drooling lobotomy I would have to have for people to think it OK for me to play Chopin.

A person quite close to me feels Chopin is pure boredom in a jar. I told Mitsuko Uchida once that I might have trouble choosing between Chopin and Schubert, and the storm that crossed her brow would have shut down the airports for days. I’ve had my moments of doubt too: occasions when I sat through the E minor Piano Concerto (a wonderful piece, IMHO) as performed by such-and-such marvelously talented young pianist and I couldn’t reconcile this superficial finger-doodling and quasi-emoting with the shiver I know, the deeply delicious savoring of passing notes, the web-like harmonic world that Chopin holds me in … hours spent at home, passing your fingers over the piano, you’re playing and you’re shivering at the same time, trapped happy fly eaten by genius spider.

Just take the slow section of the Polonaise-Fantasie:


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… And you thought nothing more could be wrung out of that old whore, dominant-and-tonic! Hard to know why this is so astoundingly beautiful. In the left hand a wave, rising-falling, and in the right hand the intersecting wave, more muted, as if a mere reflection of (or commentary on) the larger wave. Compare this to the climax of Tristan und Isolde:


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Which is almost the same–the same gist, with a reversed harmonic polarity–but Chopin has drained it of Wagnerian emotional hyperinflation, burst the bubble of the grand demonstrative stage, distilled from I and V a purer love: perhaps just the intimate (but often seemingly almost erotic) love of Chopin for the piano itself.

This pure moment would be so much less, however, without its bizarre and brilliant lead-in. We start with the bluster of a diminished seventh chord, here:


and that explodes into a massive chromatic whorl:


Standard Romantic expostulation? Maybe you have the feeling that this is a bridge too far, the chromatic’s too oozy, the drama’s outsized: you’re right about that. For the bluster somewhat obviously, tiredly wears itself out, the curlicue oozes downwards, loses steam, loses faith in itself–and we finally settle on a lone F#. What was the point? If you feel also that the new key has not quite been prepared by all this flailing about, that the transition has been ineffective, you’re right about that too: for, now, a “true preparation” comes as a rebuke to the “false preparation.” Look, see, the F# is looking for a context; Chopin makes us listen to it for a moment, alone, then with a strangely sour chord,


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then alone again, then with the “right” chord, waiting waiting waiting,


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and then the epiphany comes, utterly different from any previous moment in the piece, or any moment to come:


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… magic doorway of the other. Chopin’s simplicity rebukes Chopin’s complexity. The Genius of Chopin is sitting there, in his self-rebuke, sandwiched between an almost-clichéd chromatic transition, a pedal point, and a lyrical slow section rocking between the two most common chords there are: this glimpse of screw-you-I-can-write-something-so-beautiful-that’s-made-of-almost-nothing, as an unearthly transition between things that are also almost nothing. The four mysterious bars are a messenger, unveiling a new chapter before vanishing, a chapter which turns out to be the quietly beating heart of the piece.

I want to go back to that long pause on the F#.

One of the great and strange elements of the Polonaise-Fantasie, one of its “themes,” is that the act of listening is woven into its fabric. Chopin wants you to listen–carefully! thoughtfully!–to certain sounds, certain pitches, certain moments; the structure of the story he is telling is utterly dependent upon this listening. But he knows that listening is an inherently lazy activity, often thoughtless, often lulling itself into complacency. Just look around the boxes of Carnegie some night if you don’t believe me on this. [Sometimes I look out into the crowd while I’m playing and I will see some rapt individual beaming ecstasy, and I will tell myself not to look any more, but then I can’t help it, I look around later and there is some guy searching the back of the program for classified ads and clearly desperate to get out of my concert and straight to the liquor store and then home to ESPN.]

Anyway. So Chopin writes “enforced” listening moments into the piece–strangely arresting moments, like that F# held, alone, then heard against an astringent dissonance, then heard alone again, then heard against the “correct” dissonance, the dominant seventh–moments that enact, in a kind of slo-mo, the very process of hearing dissonances resolve against a pedal …

The beginning of the Polonaise-Fantasy is an extraordinary example of this. Chopin begins with two announcing chords … and then follows them with a long unmeasured arpeggio (prolonging the harmony of the second chord) …


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The same gesture of chord arpeggio is then repeated:


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These arpeggios have, in a way, a mundane purpose. They fill up the thwunk and the attack of the piano with beauty: the arpeggio sails languidly into the dead space, the still lagoon of the note’s decay. But this is not all. A kind of rhythm is established, in this very unrhythmic beginning, a rhythm of events: chords, fermata, arpeggio … act, stop, listen. The pauses are quite long–deliberately almost too long–and so the action is weighted towards listening (thought) and against action. The pianist “does something,” plays two significant or signifying chords, then is forced to meditate on what he or she has done: the arpeggios are parentheses seeming to be inaction, but perhaps are the truer action (meditation, understanding). In creating this pace of events, by “building in” reflection and observation, Chopin creates an unusual kind of beginning. This piece does not begin in order to begin, but rather in order to summon some spirit to allow us to begin: in other words, the introduction is an invocation. And of course the spirit Chopin is patiently invoking is sound, the resonance of the piano, the ringing of the wood, some appreciation of the beauty of the struck harmonies drifting through time.

This often odd “enforced” listening to retained, held notes persists. For instance:


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Chopin extracts, strangely, the middle voice from the chord, forces us to listen to it for a moment alone, then uses it as a pivot to the next event. He’s trying to encourage complex listening skills, by delving into the crusty middles of chords! Definitely not a superficial thrill, but a thrill for those “in the know.” Or perhaps this example, where we land on a B-flat:


… and twice Chopin makes us listen to the B-flat alone, while the rest of the voices attempt to cadence around it, before ending simply, perfectly, profoundly:


But the most wonderful, strange example of enforced listening is at the end of the piece. We are flush from the ecstasy of a climax, an A-flat major explosion of the slow section theme … this ecstasy is slowly winding down. Chopin gracefully abandons the energy of the climax, unravels it in circles, and in the echoing of this happiness he finds something unlooked-for, a kind of dark “second thought”:


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… This darkness (or sadness, if you like) complicates the emotional image of the end, disrupts the fading bliss. And then Chopin throws over the ending a magnificent anomaly. As you see above, the dark measures cadence, we have a quiet, low A-flat major chord … the piece might be over? … and then while the low chord still sounds in the pedal, Chopin instructs the pianist to play one loud A-flat major chord, in the high register.

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Yow. The luminous final chord then resounds against the dark overtones of the previous bars: a jarring double image, a bright light on a dark canvas. The effect is not either of those chords, but how you hear them decay together, their resonant death.

The pianist’s typical virtuosic, towering gesture is to try to “sum up” all the registers of the piano at once, to be everywhere at once, to be (sort of) an orchestra. This is the pianist equivalent of the phallic, midlife crisis truck purchase. Chopin is past such insecurities; here, things are definitely not all at once: the chord, the sensation, the understanding of the ending is assembled from disparate parts, foundation and overtone mismatched. It’s as though two endings are superimposed–the brilliant ending that could have been, the sad ending that could have been–and therefore the actual ending is a rare hybrid, with genes of two could-have-beens.

Chopin could have finished the piece with a surge, one last surge to victory (surges are so popular these days); but no, he is not finishing a piece, he is finishing a thought; this is a moment not for the pianist’s glory but for one last, complex listening. Listening “between” two layers of sound. My late great teacher used to talk about Chopin’s hypersensitivity, his mind “like the paws of a cat,” and then he would take his stocky Hungarian body, once employed as prisoner of war to break stones in the Carpathian mountains, and with a few gestures and a lifted eyebrow he’d make himself seem as light as a cat’s step, and with feathery gestures of his hand he’d come down on the piano, on some simple but illuminating pair of harmonies, and then his eye would meet my eye and I felt he was trying to communicate to overprivileged American me Chopin’s vast refinement of thought and elegance and culture, how he valiantly rescued the original from the salon’s tremendous pressure of cliché … elusive fragile epiphanies of sound, standing on the summit of the piano’s wood-and-wire construction … well, that’s the Chopin I love, and he’s no dummy.

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