This piece can easily devolve into banging in the repeated left hand chords and unmelodic thumping in the right hand repeated notes. There is not a lot of melody, especially considering the amount of repeated E’s in the first phrase. The pianist’s challenge is to make this piece angsty and musical.
Reisenberg does this by leading to beat 3 in measures 1 and 3. This slight crescendo to and decrescendo from the beat creates a nice phrase, so the DNA of Mozart’s theme-the repeated notes-is not played like an apology, yet it doesn’t sound pedantic.
Not that the second theme is much more melodic. Is the melody in the right hand filigree or the left hand chords? For Reisenberg, the answer is the latter, but her left hand is still phrased with very precise shaping and rhythmic cut-offs. This is very string-like playing. The left hand continues to dominate when it splits into two-part polyphony, but the real magic is in the right hand. Even though it’s subordinate, this is some of the most lyrical playing for seemingly “filler” notes. How many times have you heard these 16th notes played completely rhythmically? Some people would say that every note is pearly, but I’m not really sure what that means. To me, her fast notes seem to float out of the piano, she’s playing with a beautiful, light, and even tone, yet it’s as if there’s no bottom of the keybed, no percussive beginning to any one tone.
I have to say a few words about Reisenberg’s development section: The drama is unleashed here. Mozart has undertaken a really nifty compositional trick. We hear the first theme in C major, elliding with the ending tonality of the exposition. He fakes a modulation to F major/minor, a perfectly natural progression, but in the sixth measure of this section, confuses the eye by replacing Db with the enharmonic C#. This makes no difference to the listener, but it’s a nifty trick to those following the score, signalling that something is up harmonically. In measure seven, we begin a downward cascade of broken chords on the dominant 7th of F, but in the next measure, rewrites that enharmonically as a German Augmented 6th chord so that we land in measure nine in B major. This key ‘splits the difference’ between the key we start in, a minor, and the relative major, C Major. The harmony isn’t stable in this new key for long, but it’s a noteworthy achievement that we ended up here at all.
What Mozart was never great with is pulling apart his themes. He didn’t need to, he could create drama with a new melody, or with these tricky slights-of-hand. Not coincidentally, the left hand lives in a range much lower than it has inhabited thus far in the piece, in a stormy pattern that’s new too. Meanwhile the right hand has some biting dissonances.
While Nadia Reisenberg perhaps kept the demonic powers at bay in the exposition, they are unleashed here. The bass booms, and while I’d have preferred that she not shy away from the right hand dissonances, she tracks the dotted rhythm through the entire left hand, creating a gnarly web of melody. When the first theme comes back briefly in A major, she makes no qualms about pounding here, while not hammering. As we land on the dominant to prepare for the return to a minor, she shows off the jumps and trills of the left hand very clearly. All of these elements make the Development section come alive.
It’s hard to find the right words to describe the magic that is the 2nd movement of this Sonata in Reisenberg’s hands. Certainly, I don’t dare track moment by moment pianistic tools that she uses. This is beautiful playing, which has the delicacy that so many people crave in Mozart playing, but still amply phrased and melodies differentiated with clear articulation. A visual inspection of the score suggests a busy sounding movement: plenty of articulation, phrasing, rhythmic variety and accompanimental vitality. All of these differentiations are present, yet the sound of the music is simple, straightforward and natural.
The finale is more agitated than angsty. Generally I’m happy with the balance she strikes between the hands. I think Mozart creates the illusion of independent hands, each hand with its own rhythmic ostinato and melodic shape, that line up for brief moments at cadences, when the left hand has quarter notes. I think a little more left hand would have made this compositional device more apparent, and the moments of coordination between the happens ironically jarring. But, when the hands flip ostinatos for the B-section in e minor, Reisenberg’s voicing is so mysterious and the interaction between the hands so nervous, that this oddly mono-themed Rondo is a great success.
Bonus: Attached to the playlist is another pianist who recorded this piece but no other Mozart Sonata--Dinu Lipatti.
At some point in the last few weeks, I ran across this article about the 'tragic decline of music literacy (and quality)'. I had it open in the tabs of my smart-phone's browser, one of 80 some parges or articles that I think "I should read this sometime", then forget about. I was trying to clear some of these out and finally read it, and I'm frustrated. Obviously, I think musical literacy and musical education is important. My wife is an elementary music teacher, I spend most of my working hours every week teaching. I hope to spread musical appreciation in all the performing that I do.
But I really hate the way this author made the argument. He takes cliches, unecessary generalizations, to denegrate swaths of music that is very meaningful to many people. While I do believe that classical music, and modern art music, is the ultimate aim and highest form of all music, I would not for a second look down upon someone who loves pop music, or folk music. If a deeper appreciation of this is as far as a person needs to be musically content, then their lives are better for it. That doesn't mean there isn't anything to teach these people, or that there is no way or no need to teach the appreciation of pop music.
Below i've gone through this article and left some of my commentary, Maybe sometimes I'm being picky over definitions, but I think it's important to deconstruct this elitist argument.
Throughout grade school and high school, I was fortunate to participate in quality music programs. Our high school had a top Illinois state jazz band; I also participated in symphonic band, which gave me a greater appreciation for classical music. It wasn’t enough to just read music. You would need to sight read, meaning you are given a difficult composition to play cold, without any prior practice.
Being a good sight reader, doesn't necessitate reading music that is significantly difficult. Only the prior practice part is true.
Sight reading would quickly reveal how fine-tuned playing “chops” really were.
There is no innate correlation between good sight-reading and good chops. Some excellent performers do not sightread well, but you cannot intuit that from their excellent performing abilities.
In college I continued in a jazz band and also took a music theory class. The experience gave me the ability to visualize music (If you play by ear only, you will never have that same depth of understanding music construct.)
Playing by ear in no ways assumes inability to read music. It simply refers to one's primary means of preparing the basic notes one is performing. But ignore that and take the second part. Take any blind musician, like Stevie Wonder or Nobuyuski Tsujii, and try to tell me that they do not have a depth of understanding music.
Both jazz and classical art forms require not only music literacy, but for the musician to be at the top of their game in technical proficiency, tonal quality and creativity in the case of the jazz idiom.
I don't understand how creativity cannot play a part in the performance of classical music
Two primary sources for learning to read music are school programs and at home piano lessons.
I'm a piano teacher, but I am under no illusion that the best way to gain musical literacy and understanding is by taking piano lessons. What part of the percentage decrease in piano lessons is due to students taking lessons on other musical instruments?
Stores dedicated to selling pianos are dwindling across the country as fewer people take up the instrument. In 1909, piano sales were at their peak when more than 364,500 were sold, but sales have plunged to between 30,000 and 40,000 annually in the US. Demand for youth sports competes with music studies, but also, fewer parents are requiring youngsters to take lessons as part of their upbringing.
The decrease in piano sales does not itself prove any decline in musical education. Again, more students might be taking lessons on other instruments. Moreover, pianos are not something you need to replace even every 10 or 20 years. At some point, even as the population grows, pianos can be passed down or sold privately between individuals, and these instruments can serve just as good a role in a young person's musical education as a brand new instrument. I myself practice primarily on a piano handed down from my wife's grandparents.
The results of the study (of pop songs across the 20th century) revealed that timbral variety went down over time, meaning songs are becoming more homogeneous. Translation: most pop music now sounds the same. Timbral quality peaked in the 60's and has since dropped steadily with less diversity of instruments and recording techniques. Today’s pop music is largely the same with a combination of keyboard, drum machine and computer software greatly diminishing the creativity and originality.
Seeing trends in these areas is noteworthy, but doesn't prove that understanding of music is likewise declining. Take the entire orchestral works of Mozart. They have almost entirely the same timbre, but you're not going to use that against the value of Mozart.
Pitch has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining. Pitch content has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining as musicians today are less adventurous in moving from one chord or note to another, opting for well-trod paths by their predecessors.
Again, you could make the argument that for hundreds of years, classical composers used the same chords. Sure, they used more chords pop musicians mnight today, but classical composers were not innately brilliant just for their chordal progressions. There are many other factors at play.
Loudness was found to have increased by about one decibel every eight years. Music loudness has been manipulated by the use of compression. Compression boosts the volume of the quietest parts of the song so they match the loudest parts, reducing dynamic range. With everything now loud, it gives music a muddled sound, as everything has less punch and vibrancy due to compression.
The problem of compression isn't untrue. But it is partly a matter of efficiency so that music can be shared more easily, I would think.
An astonishing amount of today’s popular music is written by two people: Lukasz Gottwald of the United States and Max Martin from Sweden, who are both responsible for dozens of songs in the top 100 charts. You can credit Max and Dr. Luke for most the hits of these stars:
Someone with better understanding of pop music can see if it's true that "You can credit Max and Dr. Luke for most (of) the hits of" those stars. It seems like quite a statement to make. But, my understanding that in pop music, the lyrics and chords and melodic flow are set by the songwriter. Arrangements, including most of the "hooks, riffs, and electric drum effects" are a result of the producer, of which there are many more than 2.
Furthermore, a very limited number of composers wrote the music that we hear in classical concert halls and opera houses. Does that mean the quality of this music is lessened?
When artists like Taylor Swift claim they write their own music, it is partially true, insofar as she writes her own lyrics about her latest boyfriend breakup, but she cannot read music and lacks the ability to compose what she plays.
But the melody, chords and rhythm of pop songs is rarely notated! It can be passed down aurally. I'm a well trained musician, and an excellent sight reader, but when playing worship songs in my church, I don't follow notated music just like anyone playing in the band who may not read a note of music.
Music electronics are another aspect of musical decline as the many untalented people we hear on the radio can’t live without autotune. Autotune artificially stretches or slurs sounds in order to get it closer to center pitch. Many of today’s pop musicians and rappers could not survive without autotune, which has become a sort of musical training wheels. But unlike a five-year-old riding a bike, they never take the training wheels off to mature into a better musician. Dare I even bring up the subject of U2s guitarist “The Edge” who has popularized rhythmic digital delays synchronized to the tempo of the music? You could easily argue he’s more an accomplished sound engineer than a talented guitarist.
I won't argue about autotune. But to be upset about the use of electronics in music generally is laughable. There are highly refined musicians doing incredible things with electronics. And so what if "The Edge" is more a sound engineer than guitarist. That's simply an ad hominem attack that says nothing about the success of the music at hand.
The worst part is knowing that cancellation (of school music programs) is almost always based on two deliberate falsehoods peddled by school administrators: 1) Cancellation is a funding issue (the big lie); 2) music and the arts are too expensive (the little lie).
Yes, standardized tests have done much to ruin education. But that still doesn't mean that it isn't expensive to run music programs!
While contact sports like football are proven brain damagers, music participation is a brain enhancer.
People have gotten life-altering physical injuries from music too. People's brains can also be enhanced incredibly, in the same way as with music, by sports, without the risk of brain injuries. This is a ridiculous correlation without causation argument.
I want to be an advocate of music education. But we can't make stupid, illogical arguments to make the case. Musical merits make the argument quite well. We are not in a society where there is widespread appreciation of those merits, but moving the goalposts or denigrating "lesser" forms of music appreciation cheapens our arguments.
You appreciate this caricature of Mozart in Amadeus when you listen to the obscure works in his catalogue. We know the hundreds, thousands of melodies from his best known genres: operas, symphonies, piano concertos, sonatas, string quartets. But there’s so much out there that we never hear. Last month I was listening to several of the flute quartets, this month I listened to the Church Sonatas (sometimes called Epistle Sonatas).
I can’t imagine many people have listened to these works, some 17 short works written mostly when Mozart was a young professional church musician in Salzburg. I will admit that when I saw this genre, I assumed they were some inconsequential choral works, written for immediate practical use in the liturgy.
It turns out, these Church Sonatas are mini-symphonies. They seem to take Sonata-Allegro form, and use small forces: a few instruments with continuo. Some recordings play one instrument to a part, how Mozart would have heard them, but some, such as the Daniel Chorzempa album on the accompanying playlist, use filled out orchestral forces. On a few occasions, the organ continuo takes a soloist role. Who knew that Mozart wrote organ concertos!
It turns out these works were written for a practical purpose: to fill ceremonial time between scripture readings in the liturgical service where Mozart served as church musician. These works probably were written in the same key as the Mass service used that day, Mozart was simply adding his style as an interlude to this sacred music.
But these pure orchestral works are excellent pieces. The themes are memorable, and are treated with the same compositional finesse we would expect from any substantial work by Mozart. Though short, these Church Sonatas are a trove of melodies that few Mozart fans get to appreciate. Realizing that these works exist lends credence to that fictionalized view of the composer in Amadeus: it was as if he was able to create melodies effortlessly on divine inspiration.
Last month I gave some of my personal history with Mozart. I wrote about hating him as a high schooler, and how i came around to loving him. There's a few steps I missed.
In my master's degree, I had a chance to study with Ann Chang at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She had studied plenty of fortepiano, but specialized in transferring this performance practice knowledge to the modern piano. So while there was a fortepiano there, and I got to epxeriment plenty on it, we worked on Mozart and Beethoven on a modern Steinway. I came to understand the language of notation that was familiar, presumptuous, in Mozart's day, how translation of that language became transmuted over time, and how we can capture aspects of the fortepiano on today's instruments. I even got to play in a masterclass by fortepiano and classical performance practice specialist, Malcolm Bilson; a true class by a master if there ever was one. He told me at the time that I understood the rules, but I wasn't a very good salesman for the cause; I had work to do to make these ideas convincing.
These were very influential ideas for me. Combined with my discovery of the Golden Age of piano playing, I veered towards contemporary music, because I was so dissatisfied with how pianists interpreted that music of the historical canon.
Then I became a contemporary music snob. My DMA is literally "in contemporary music", and I loved the program I was in. I've written plenty about how I believe in the importance of even the most difficult, abstract contemporary music (see all the posts under the 'contemporary music' category in the archives). But in becoming a advocate of this abstract music, I began to discount tonality entirely. I looked down on the tonal system as one of idiotic simplicity.
This attitude stemmed from my budding appreciation for complex atonal languages that composers of the 20th century have developed. My intellectual curiosity (as well as musical satisfaction) was piqued by composers who used very simple musical material to derive all kinds of music aspects: harmony, rhythm, form, etc. Of course this is not dissimilar to how classical composers created themes and developed them throughout a movement, or in the case of Beethoven, using motives to connect across movements.
But it was all so obvious in tonality. Especially with Mozart. Glenn Gould evidently said that Mozart could never write a proper development section, especially since he never had anything worth developing. I grew into that view the more I grew into contemporary music. Mozart's music was so easy to like that it wasn't worth liking.
I'm not sure what changed that attitude. I finished my DMA in May of 2015 and by that fall I was reworking Mozart's Sonata K 333 to have some good recordings of standard repertoire. Over time, I think I allowed myself to enjoy something whether or not it was intellectually satisfying.
And then the further out I've been from my DMA, the more I see the intellectual underpinnings of tonal composers, especially Mozart. I've been reading Charles Rosen's The Classical Style (which will be the subject of future posts!) and he is able to make incredible connections between obscure aspects of Mozart's music, for instance, how the accompaniment in a piano work becomes the melody later on. Or subtle shifts in Mozart's Sonata forms which revolutionize the sense of drama.
Just because something is 'easy on the ears', doesn't mean the music can't have deep intellectual underpinnings.
I've loved the music of Kaija Saariaho for several years. Her music has always sounded Debussy-esque, except more lush and sensual. She's one of those living composers who I expect would speak to those uninitiated in contemporary music. I played her Ballade for solo piano on one of my doctoral recitals and I loved how she created this lushness with intricate textures and requiring more than a little subtlety with the damper pedal.
Her opera L’Amour de Loin comes from the year 2000, and has the distinction, as unfortunate as it may be, of being the first opera by a woman produced by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in over 100 years. I got to watch that production through the Met on Demand service, but I've attached a recording to this post in lieu of a production.
The story is set in the 12th century, which seems appropriate to the musical style that we hear throughout. There's something archaic, gothic actually, about Saariaho’s music that seems so appropriate for that setting. I've read the synopsis before starting to watch that Met production, but I otherwise know nothing of this opera or its music. I followed along with a vocal reduction and English subtitles.
Immediately the vocal score seems almost unecessary. Saariaho's orchestrations are so isntricate, and texture so refined, that so much detail will naturally be missing. Given all that's left out, I'd still rather not be the rehearsal pianist! For my purposes, the piano reduction of the orchestra plays a helpful role. I'd like to have some sense of how she translates her sound pallette-which keep in mind, often makes use of live electronic manipulation of and in conjunction with acoustic instruments-to operatic form.
One criticism of contemporary music is that listeners have trouble knowing what to listen for. When you're not well versed in a musical language, it's hard for anything to stick in your head. Even I'm not going to be able to whistle Saariaho's melodies after one or two listens! Throughout the first couple “tableaux”, I felt like the relationship of the orchestra and voices was very consistent. So even if a musical relationship doesn't stick in someone's ear, this consistency allows the audience to focus on the words.
Here's an example: As I listened to the second tableaux, with the pilgrim’s first aria, I recognized the words “beautiful without the arrogance of beauty” from the main character, Jaufre, who sang the same words earlier. I jumped back in the score and it turns out that the melody is the same for both characters. I don't know that I would have made that musical connection on melody alone. The orchestra is different in both circumstances, which shows the versatility of her melodic material. But this clarity in which the words are set makes that connection obvious.
This same text comes back in Act 2, this time the pilgrim singing to Clemence. The melody is almost the same, same rhythm but slight variations in the intervallic content. But when Jaufre and the pilgrim each sing this in Act 1, the temporal action is very close together. Here, some time has passed, since the Pilgrim has travelled “afar” between these two presumably lovers-to-be. So the variations in the melody help illustrate this passage of time. The Pilgrim remembers the words used before but the melody is a little fuzzy. Again, these are all things I notice only because of the score, but it's a great example of a composer subtly tying the dramatic elements to the musical.
This is a noteworthy opera given that there are only 3 roles, plus an all tenor/bass and all soprano/alto choruses. So far the accuracy of all singers is extraordinary. The counting itself is actually quite straightforward, but the regularity if the heat is not obvious from the orchestra, yet the ensemble is very rhythmically coordinated from all singers and the orchestra. Of course this is memorized from all the singers!
Nowhere is the singer's artistry and accuracy more apparent than in The Pilgrim's aria early in the second tableaux of act 2 (see track 8 in this recording), where she sings Jaufre's love song to Clemence (later, the Pilgrim tells him that he “I mumbled them more or less", which is interesting regarding my 'passage of time' comment above'). Tamara Mumford sings The Pilgrim with such passion, and organic lyricism that one need not realize that the melodic line or it's rhythm is at all difficult. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Saariaho harmonizes and orchestrates this chanson hauntingly, recalling medieval harmony in parallel fourths and a lack of leading tone motion, but also not without some lush dissonances. Throughout, I find Mumford's performance to be the most enthralling.
Overall, I loved getting to know this opera, even though I listened to only about half of it actively. Saariaho created a beautiful score and she finds this nice balance between a consistent harmonic voice in her music while still adapting the vocal style and orchestral accompaniment to the drama at hand. This is something that made Mozart's operas so great. With such abstract music it is sometimes hard to get a concrete understanding what is going on only from listening. But, for example, in Act 5, as Jafre dies, all parts, chorus, soloist and orchestra, the pitch is always descending and then sitting low. A general understanding of the plot will indicate the word painting quite easily.
"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