On our last full day in Salzburg, a Sunday, we visited the Mozart Residence, the place where he spent his formative years. We went early in the morning and just as we were walking out, the bells from a nearby church began to ring. Standing in this square, I was struck by the thought: Mozart himself probably heard these same bells. I like to at least think they were the exact same bells, but certainly he heard some very similar from the exact same church building. And quite possibly they were rung the exact same way in his day as that day I heard them: by a rope pulled by a church employee.
Given how much the world has changed in the 200+ years since Mozart lived there, it was quite a wondrous realization that such a sound could connect myself to such a famous figure.
That moment, and that thought, have inspired me since, especially as I explore traditional repertoire again. This music, truly ‘classical’ music connects figures through time in the same way these bells did. In performing the music of Mozart, I have a direct connection to the artistic passions of a man who lived hundreds of years before, who history has decided to remember. But I’m also connected to people who have played this music since. Great artists who have turned simple notes on a page into beautiful, magical art in sound. The excitement one feels sharing a passion with a friend is amplified when you get to share it with a host of people through time.
I’ve been finding this concept inspiring, but also humbling.
This music has survived for so many generations for good reason, and I must try to do it justice. There is a certain amount of social capital involved by joining the tradition of performing classical music. So many beautiful artistic ideas have been cultivated with these scores and I have a responsibility to do justice to this artistry.
But the time which it has survived through is also present when I play it. These bells I heard in Salzburg rang during war, and were heard by all sorts of figures and events that history would rather forget. The music of Mozart has been played and enjoyed by contemptable people as well. The responsibility of playing this music and accepting the history it has is not just a matter of artistry, but also of reconciliation, of a wish to do good in and for the world.
This is one aspect of studying and performing music which contemporary works cannot share in. Non-canonical repertoire simply does not have the accrued temporal history to carry such baggage, both good and bad. As I stated in my previous posts, this is precisely what I was looking for in pursuing the study of contemporary music. But I don’t know a person who doesn’t have some curiosity to understand history. The classical canon gives performers the opportunity to connect through time with sound to history, to worlds long forgotten, and to try and change the world we live in.
revisited the entry now, 10 years later, I randomly opened just one page past it; at some point, the spine must have been loosened in that one spot but fortuitously so, as I was intrigued by the entry:
Faure-like introduction leads to a larger Liszt-like section.
That was it, but the juxtaposition of Faure and Liszt made me want to see the score. I sought out the score and a recording and though I was enamored, I feared it was too difficult for me to learn just then. Plus, I was already dreaming about performing too many other obscure works that there was no room to fit another into my program. The year after I had to consider having enough standard works for masters auditions.
The years went by and I always wanted to work on this piece. But during my masters, other points of focus emerged, whether for technical study or to fill gaps in my repertoire list. Then of course through my DMA I was focused on contemporary music.
I began to look at it in the spring of 2016, solidifying it more or less that summer. After having no time for solo repertoire during the 2016-2017 year, I revisited it this summer and knew that I needed to not just perfect my performance but find concert programs I could include it in. I’m looking forward to finally, 10 years after discovering the piece, performing it. It’s extra appropriate that I would get around to finishing the piece this year, just as the 150th anniversary of her birth rolls around (doubly so as my home and native land, Canada, also celebrates the same landmark).
I’m not sure why this piece has always stuck with me as a special, and unjustly neglected one. I don’t particularly agree with Hinson’s assessment of Faure-influences. The opening resembles Chopin-esque piano writing more than anyone else, and the harmonies are not so advanced to suggest a later composer. I understand the Liszt reference because it has several vertical textures towards the end, big orchestral chords and octaves.
But it’s not a referential piece. It can’t really be mistaken for Liszt or Chopin. It has a unique melodic expressiveness, and the virtuosic moments aren’t unnecessarily so. The music sings, the harmonies float forward, and there’s plenty of room for one’s own voice through rubato and phrasing.
I’m of course drawn to the piece for the same reasons I was drawn to contemporary music: namely, I’ve wanted to develop my artistic voice in the context of works without an established performing tradition. I’m still weary of working with commonly played pieces for fear that I will not think critically about my interpretation but rely on reproducing what I’ve heard others do in past performances and recordings. (I’ll write about this problem in a future post.) Amy Beach’s Ballad was especially exciting, more than most contemporary music, simply for its rather traditional, romantic approach. So few pieces this standard are played so rarely, I’ve always treasured it as ‘my little secret’.
But of course, I want more people to know it; it surprises me how few of her works are well known. I’ve heard some perform her shorter character pieces, and a few songs, but most else gets ignored. Her Piano Concerto, Op. 45 is an incredible work with lots of power and virtuosity, on par with any of the commonly played romantic piano concertos. Her songs take the expressive tradition of German lieder to the English language, without wordiness bogging down the lyricism or needlessly dense piano parts that you find amongst many English art song composers from her time (I’m thinking Roger Quilter style here). Plus, there’s some great chamber works and large solo piano works from later in her life.
Working on this piece has been encouraging to hear and see demonstrative proof of my growth as an artist. When I first looked at this score, I thought it was rather difficult. It’s not without its challenges, but the Ballad is manageable, technically. It does test the innate musicality and poetry of a performer, and I’ve been pleased to listen to recordings of myself with it and to hear the singing shapes that I’ve been aiming for. Even a few years ago, when I had the mechanical facility to play this piece, I still would have had difficulty doing the artistic things I wanted. I’m grateful that I never tainted this piece by working on it when I was younger, and now would have to undo bad habits and learned weaknesses.
This year I am focusing on as much traditional repertoire as I can…but music I’ve heard almost no one perform ever, attempting to bring as pure an ear to these pieces as I can. Theoretically, this will be the best space for me to solidify my own artistic voice, which in future years, I will be able to apply to all sorts of music—contemporary or standard, well known or obscure-without fear of being an imposter.
This last week I’ve teased a few clips of the Beach Ballad. Check them out in the videos below. Keep an eye out in the next few months as I will be sure to release an exclusive complete performance of the piece. Best to ‘like’ my Facebook page, and sign up for my mailing list to make sure you don’t miss it!
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I thought I should share how I was drawn to play music like this…
This situation is different. First, I’m drawn to the beauty of the music and text. The same holds true for the other crazy, abstract music I play, and the other spectacle-like performances I’ve done, such as ones on toy piano.
This was not always so!
I used to hate contemporary music. I remember when my college teacher assigned me this piece the summer before my sophomore year. Dutifully, I purchased the score but could not bring myself to work on it. Visually I was intimidated: there are sections without meter, sections with weird changing meters. Aurally I was insulted: there are chords built out of difficult collections of intervals and where was the tonal center? I had no idea how to grasp it. This isn’t even getting into the horror I later looked at the music of serial composers, like this one, with. What awful, kerplunkity music. How are you even supposed to know if I’m playing the right notes or not?
What I always was interested in, however, was rarely heard music by older composers. I spoke a little more about this in my Influential Books series post on Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age. That book opened my eyes to this brand new way of playing the piano that I was so attracted to.
I tried to approach music with fresh ears in graduate school. I ran into some trouble preparing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in Bb minor, from WTC 1. I came to the realization that I (and really anyone who plays it) was counting the Prelude in 8/8 meter, rather than the marked 4/4. Which is to say, I played it so slowly, that the eighth note, rather than the quarter, was the actual beat. This seemed wrong. So I moved to a slow quarter note pulse, which brought out an angsty, raging piece. It sounded fast, but in reality, I was just counting the piece in the proper meter. The dramatic moment near the end with a pause over a diminished 7th chord became an even greater moment of discord and emotion.
I was very lucky to have my teacher at the time who let me play that way, so different than anyone else has, and even helped me make my case a little more convincing, even if he himself wasn’t convinced! But I knew I wouldn’t always be lucky, and I knew that I had a lot to learn about being a convincing, artistic performer.
I realized that I needed to mature. But to get the best of both worlds, I found a solution: I could pursue the kind of playing I was after if I focused on music without an established performance tradition. Enter the Doctorate of Music Arts in Contemporary Music at Bowling Green State University.
I was honored to receive one of the limited spots in this program in 2011. I had learned to accept the accessible contemporary music by this time, and was eager to learn more. It’s a difficult program, full of academic work, which challenges your mind, and your time management skills. The program has high standards but is infinitely supportive of all the various projects the students are into.
I think the defining moment was when I was approached that first fall semester by a senior saxophonist, asking me to play Charles Wuorinen’s Divertimento for his recital several months away. That’s that jagged, ugly serial music I mentioned earlier! I wasn’t keen on the idea but I figured I had to give it a shot, I was here for that kind of music.
I agonized over the score for a couple weeks but inevitably we got together for our first rehearsal, on the slow opening section. I was astounded that, though not without coordination difficulties, it actually worked! The harmonies had logic and direction when played together, and these rhythms fit to create a brand new sense of time. I discovered that there is a cognitive appeal to this music and that playing it accesses some part of the brain that isn’t challenged in the same way through tonality.
From here it was an easy and enjoyable slope to discovering and appreciating all kinds of contemporary styles. There are some I love more than others, and a few I to this day dislike. But my love for the music led me to perform something as extroverted as the Rzewski, linked above. And, I feel much closer to my goal of having an established, mature sense of artistry.
Now that I’ve been a graduate of my program for 2 years, I’m making an honest effort to finally bring myself back to standard repertoire. I’ve played some canonical music over the last 6 years since I came to Bowling Green, whether collaborating, or revisiting solo repertoire I’d learned before, plus I learned a few new things here and there.
But this year is all about brand new, standard repertoire. I’ve had a difficult two years. Making money right out of grad school is a tremendous distraction. And just over a year ago my wife was diagnosed with cancer and we spent the next 10 months fitting our normal lives around her treatments (luckily all is well now!). It’s been difficult to actually focus on the joy of music, instead, music was a job.
I feel I am not alone. Real life is hard, and it's so easy to forget about the things you're passionate about.
I will expand more in the next couple months. This blog series I’m calling “Artistic Messages”, because I’m interested in surveying the artistry I’ve discovered, and the artistry I’m still after. Hopefully some of this will resonate with and inspire you. I am working on some exciting things, and hope to give some exciting performances yet this season which I will expand upon in the upcoming posts.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act