THE GREAT PIANISTS

Harold G. Schonberg

This is a thoroughly enjoyable volume which is well-worth reading.

What does it lack? Interesting text that would make it longer.

The author describes keyboard playing by most of the great pianists. The text changes in the last half of the twentieth century, losing some description and comment: A vocabulary arises in the eighteenth century which extends into the Twentieth. But this text becomes more concert criticism than analytical when the author has heard the pianists.

There is no accurate representation of the first-class composers set forth – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy and sometimes, Liszt and Schumann, and others less capable, original composers for the piano like Mendelssohn. How did composition change their playing. The author treats these persons as pianists, yet some of Mendelssohn’s music isn’t fit to be played at a dog fight: The rhythms are uninteresting; they are straightforward rhythmic (if any) and thematic development, and the general presentation of imagination is incomplete. Indeed, many of he pianists whom the author describe played their own, insufficient compositions. That music is lost today, or might be taken from cold basement rooms of libraries and castles. None is as good as the piece discovered in Czechoslovakia in 1960, a second Haydn Cello Concerto.  

The audience is not fully explained. Did they only want acrobatics, displays at the keyboard of music that should not be played. Although opera was popular in the nineteenth century, the rush to arrange portions of operas for piano concerts was everywhere and a waste of time. Those arrangements are not played today. Yet these pieces, technically difficult and harmonically improved, took as much as half of each concert. Pianists into the Twentieth Century performed them  and other favorites – waltzes by Johann Strauss and others. Why these arrangements fell out of favor or have been ignored by pianists since 1970 remains open.   

The relationship of pianists to one another is not fully set forth. Individual meetings are noted, followings are chronicled and schools and methods are mentioned. But what of the true effect of Liszt who would sight read and play anything up to speed, or faster with control. Saint Saens had the same sight reading ability. Where were the force and effect of their compositions, definitive works? After 1855 the reader has no idea of the effect of Liszt’s E-Flat Concerto, a remarkable work that develops one theme. And the Saint-Saens Second Concerto in C minor was popular into the cartoon age, but Pianists were graded on their performance of it. Obviously Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, D Minor (l909) (the most difficult piano concerto) set a high bar for technical performance, endurance and interpretation. Schonberg does not describe much of this.

Indeed, Saint-Saens and other composers were not composing for piano alone. Why? Change of audience, or something else? Music for the piano played in 1900 was mostly composed before 1850, unless a gross adaptation of an operatic piece. The author does not explain or mention why music composed for the piano fell off. Not everyone was willing or capable of composing for orchestra. Much orchestral music of the Nineteenth Century, as well as the Eighteenth did not survive their centuries.   

What The Great Pianists also lacks is one pianist looking and hearing another and saying, “I never have to perform that piece of music again,” Sergei Rachmaninoff’s reaction after hearing Josef Hoffman playing Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata in recital. Indeed, Hoffman plays it well and distinctly.

There is little sense that pianists listened to one another much. Beginning in the first half of the Twentieth Century when recordings were made, pianists had more opportunity to listen and be informed.  More recording has made it an issue. It becomes a different issue because about 1950 the world lost two young pianists who were masters. Schonberg devotes a paragraph to each of them, and acknowledges had each lived he would have had a great career (and influence?). Indeed, Dinu Lipatti (died 1950) and William Kapell (died 1952) may have lifted pianistic performances during the last half of the Twentieth Century. The sense that any pianist during his or her life time actually influenced or lifted piano playing is not described well.

VICTORIAN GHOST STORIES

Editors, Cox & Gilbert

The Introduction of this book is the most entertaining section. The authors swoon about Victorian writers putting together hundreds of Ghost Stories. In Victorian England Christmas was a good time for ghost stories, an expectation Charles Dickens capitalized on with A Christmas Carole. The authors say there were strict formats that demanded quality writing. However, a reader’s experience differs. Some stories are chronological. Hence, write about one character, repeat the same traits and activities about the next. But for the activities of the third character, the author uses, “Meanwhile, this or that…” The thread of the story is lost, and the reader can guess which character – one, two or three – has or deserves the floor.

I stopped reading in A. Y. Akerman, The Miniature, when I stumbled into the following paragraph:

‘At the breakfast table I was moody and thoughtful, which my friend perceiving,
attempted a joke; but I was in no humour to receive it, when Maria, in a
compassionating tone, remarked I looked unwell, and that I should take a walk
or a ride before breakfast, adding that she and George S— had walked for an hour
or more in the plantation near the house. Though this announcement was certainly
but ill calculated to ease my mind, it was yet made with such an artless air, that my
more gloomy surmises vanished; and I rallied;…’

Being in a disagreeable mood at the breakfast table without humor and appearing unwell, one might disregard comments, but to reveal anything about all the persons at the table, tell what the joke was. Perhaps friends looking sickly in Victorian England were invited to walk or ride interrupting breakfast and avoiding whatever substance they could consume. Go outdoors and get pneumonia!

However, the character has no mind of his own. He thought of none of those remedies. Note this character appears whimsical and supercilious with no will or fortitude of his own:

Through his announcement was certainly but ill calculated to afford perfect ease
to my mind, it was yet made with such an artless air, that my more gloomy
surmises vanished, and I rallied;…

As far as the reader can tell, the author of the suggestion came to the table with hand fulls of uppers and passed them around. This character popped a couple and was set for the morning. Suspending disbelief which this paragraph requires, all readers can see it is variable and nonsense: Note, the character describes himself as “moody and thoughtful;” it becomes “unwell” and next in the character’s mind he is “gloomy.” Why does the author of this piece drop in adverbs, “but ill calculated” and “yet made.”

This is not acceptable writing in middle school. Writing must make sense – communicate clearly – to be good, solid and worthy.

THE NEXT OPERA

Cinderella & Company, by Manuela Hoelterhoff

This excellent book about the inside of the world of opera is amusing, well-written, to the point and short.

Initially, an impression comes to the reader. The book is a story of antedotes – the opera in the 1990s and in the past – but there is more.

A growing realization comes that the author has written the outline for a new opera libretto: Singers of all sexs, shapes and ages are themselves; most have great talent but do not want to sing. Every singer in a libretto based upon this book can sing a few bars from a famous aria and quit, as if to say, “see I know the whole thing.” In the songs of the opera singers sound out their excuses, reasons, or disgust why they will not perform. NOTE: Sets for the new opera cost zero because everything is backstage. It is all in this book including the ending where some singers mature and otherwise grow up, getting over their juvenile, wanton ways in order to return to the silly world of the opera stage. There’s a lot of money at stake.

Read this book to be entertained, or to write a libretto.

CORRESPONDING WITH CARLOS – Charles Barber

This engaging, funny, instructive, artistic book is part biography of the late twentieth century Austrian conductor, Carlos Kleiber; the other part of the volume is epistolary, letters from the conductor to the author. Kleiber is recognized as one of the best conductors of his times. He did not record much; he did not pursue fame. He took extreme care in performance (mostly opera) and on recordings to get the best music, performed and presented.

Art and perfection in its presentation are the most difficult feats for any person to achieve in performance. Kleiber has no set process. No conductor and no artist should. If one writes a book review, a novel or a biography, the writer should be conscious of different processes required from each product. It is true with a painter – self-portrait, landscape or city scene; a composer – a piano piece, a symphony or an opera. Each work of art should have its own forces, thoughts and games by the originator.

A conductor takes each piece of music, sets it into its style, regionally and historically, and brings out the voices, rhythms and sensations. Corresponding describes this process incompletely because Carlos Kleiber was always unsure of himself: He had great talent, devotion, energy, discipline and imagination, and although he had an ego and it seems colossal and unerring at times, doubts arose. He knew his knowledge, understanding and abilities had limits. He always wanted to know whether Verdi composed an opera while eating a boatload of bad calamari; it was useful to know the inflammatory patterns of Wagner’s hemorrhoids while he composed Tristan and Isolde. But in doubt about other stuff and getting an orchestra to perform to the conductor’s interpretation festered uncertainty.

Learning to conduct involves all the musicianship taught at conservatories, plus experiences of a lifetime, conducting orchestras and ensembles plus seeing and hearing other conductors, preferably in person. While big named conductors, including Kleiber, rehearsed with orchestras other big named conductors liked to sit unobtrusively in the seats and listen. Security sweeps of the house would remove the uninvited guests That degree of intimacy by the rehearsing conductor, the product soon to become public, did not protect trade secrets – nobody stole ideas because any decent conductor would have an understanding of music apart from the jumble in rehearsal. Kleiber himself had no students except the author, Charles Barber, a graduate student from Stanford 7,000 miles from Munich. The American figured how to get instruction – deliver VHS tapes of other conductors to Kleiber and await his reactions. It is true in the arts that the best instruction is sometimes delivered briefly, 35-40 words, and that is what Kleiber does.

In the biographical potion of the books (60 percent of the pages) may of the conductors were European. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony came up and Kleiber (two recordings) gives his impressions. On and on Kleiber went, and the text didn’t mention Pierre Monteux, primary a symphony (not operatic) conductor. Monteux has many recordings including dynamic presentations of Beethoven’s Seventh and Dvorak’s Seventh. There is very little of him on film. In the epistolary section I was relieved that Kleiber liked and admired “the walrus” (Monteux had a big white mustache).

It is helpful and perhaps essential to have a rudimentary understanding of music and recognizing pieces like is done in music appreciation classes. The book is written to a general audience – 70 percent of everyone will pick up and follow the artist themes. The remainder are embellishments, the knowledgable reader understanding the next 15-20 percent, and the final ten percent is understood by musicians who know or who have played the music being discussed.

In a score I know how to find a passage and understand some of the discussion in the last ten percent, but that is no longer important to me and does not yield a greater understanding of the book. [It would provide a greater understanding of the music and how Kleiber heard and did it.] Sometimes knowing everything is ludicrous; the readers sees moods, manias and childnesses: Tutti in a score means all instruments of one kind (flutes, trombones, etc) play. During a bad rehearsal Kleiber was dissatisfied and unhappy; he began to pick on various players. He told the first-cellist to change tables with the tutti-cellist (a grave, life-lingeirng insult) because the tutti cellist had been playing with more enthusiasm.

These sorts of nasty, artistic outbursts are common in the artistic word. Writers want to murder everyone, including the characters on the pages before them while they, themselves, butcher the language. Michelangelo painted Jesus Christ on Judgment Day throwing a cardinal the artist detested into Hell. This temperament is part of artistic lives and impulses also extant in Corresponding. Anyone seeking that experience, influence and stimulation would benefit from a thorough reading of this volume.

LARRY

“The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Einstein’s Physics [has] been replaced but that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” Eric Ambler, A Coffin for Dimitros

The naked guy was a student who used to walk onto the Berkeley campus wearing only shoes and a day pack. He went to class. I saw him once or twice. He wasn’t bothering anyone, but he eventually was disciplined and left the campus.

Thereafter, the University of California at Berkeley had nothing cultural or artistic to offer the world. Nothing was engagingly odd, alluring entertaining or unique. The campus needed something to contribute to American culture. One day in the mid-1990s a black guy named Larry showed up with his drums and a stool. Larry sat in the middle of Sproul Plaza from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and pounded his drums. Some passer-bus claimed that Larry varied his beats and rhythms, but most knew Larry had one routine and it was very annoying and loud. University employees in the west facing offices of Sproul Hall, in the Student Union and in the nearby cafeteria were crushed: Pounding every academic day of the semester, day after day, hour after hour, second after second.

Larry would talk to people and acknowledge others as the parade went by. He claimed to be a drum teacher and was in Sproul Plaza drumming up business. The pun was intended. From the campus police station in the basement of Sproul Hall came authority, after about a year. An arrangement was reached. Larry would move 150 feet sound to the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph. He could pound his drums all he wanted on City of Berkeley property.

If the University of California had known and correctly realized where City of Berkeley property started in 1964, there would have been no Free Speech Movement.

Larry moved south and changed his hours, 11:30 a.m. into the evening. Same drumming, same parade and a different audience hearing the pounding, heart rendering thunder now across the street from second story apartments. Larry could be heard two blocks away, over traffic, voices and the business of the city. 

Larry was there a long time, a new students wondered why the noisemaker was tolerated and allowed to disrupt the peace near the campus. There were complaints, but the University cops laughed, and the City police had more important matters than objectionable art to fuzz.

I had my car near the University a few years later. I was driving a friend from Boalt on the east side of campus to BART near the west side of campus. It was a warm and pleasant fall evening as we drove west on Bancroft Avenue. As usual I had to stop at the traffic light at Telegraph.

To our right about 30 yards ahead on the sidewalk was Larry pounding his drums. My friend has a voice that can carry a quarter mile. I said, “Tell Larry he sucks.” Down came with window.

As I peeled out, my friend boomed, “LARRY, YOU SUCK!” 

We had driven a half block when we heard the drumming stop.

Shortly thereafter Larry stopped drumming at Telegraph and Bancroft, period. It was the end of any contribution from the University of California at Berkeley to American culture. Imagine an artist stopping all effort because a complete stranger yells, “YOU SUCK! It happened, and that is the only possible result when the artistic effort and cultural contribution is ephemeral, for the moment, temporary and offensive. It’s foundation was based on public indifference backed by the worst of all human attitudes: Let him do his thing.

Americans are unwilling to draw distinctions; they don’t want to be judgmental. But all art and surviving culture is judgmental; What exists and survives is excellence, not something that people have ignored it. Yet Americans usually will pay to witness mediocrity. The choreography by cheerleading squads at most high school football games exceeds that of dancing by song-singing rock stars. Yet people pay big bucks to see the two-stepping lip-syncing robots on stage. There is one feature not available from the high school units. If the dancing and songs are not catchy in music performance, perhaps removing clothes, using drugs or being arrested for beating up someone will attract fans..

And what of the great talent from the music world. Some of it isn’t much better than Larry’s drumming. In a writing by a blogger this month, he wrote that classic music should just die. He correctly pointed out that concert halls were expensive and musicians were always asking for money. He omitted a egregious, parallel comparison: The money spent to build stadiums for professional athletics to benefit owners and athletes. The money spent there dwarfs the money spent on concert halls and symphony orchestras, and no one, if ever, tears down or stop using a music hall. Whether professional athletics is a worthwhile cultural activity is an issue I will not deal with here.

But to the doubting blogger, does he know how long it takes today’s musicians to put together an album of 75-90 minutes? It took George Frederick Handel 25 days to compose Messiah, including the orchestration, about 150 minutes of the arguably best choral music ever composed. Or try being blind and old and compose arguably the best choral music ever composed: Bach did it in the B Minor Mass. Or be DEAF for eight years and compose music that became the best symphony, and perhaps the best music ever conceived and composed: Beethoven did that in the Ninth Symphony. PLUS Beethoven may have been unhappy with the fourth movement of that symphony and considered writing a movement without a chorus. Listen to the whole symphony and wonder why Beethoven may have been unhappy.

In the field of human achievement Messiah, the B Minor Mass and the Ninth Symphony surpass artist achievements in most media. Americans could learn and appreciate much if they knew these works – if Americans replaced and oriented themselves to them rather than let themselves languish and linger, YOU SUCK in the bogs of professional sports and their rock concert fore-times, half-times and after-times.

I would rather spend money on fitful classical musicians than waste money on fitless professional athletes. 

SILLY CULTURE

“The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Einstein’s Physics [has] been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” I like this sentence from Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitros. 

What does it mean? It can be stated as a sinking bottom line i.e. when there is no foundation there is no building and no edifice. The meaning can be found in other ways. I must paraphrase H.L. Mencken: No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. A third way of saying the sentence comes from Georges Clemenceau covering the American Civil War for French newspapers and in World War One French Prime Minister: (paraphrased) America went from barbarism to decadence without the usual intervening period of civilization.

A question always arises is the relative importance of culture and its excellence to society, the economy and to a nation’s well being. Until 1870 France was becoming a stilted, static place. After a crushing military defeat in 1870 and a harsh peace of 1871 France transformed itself initially by culture. In the fine arts French painting, music and sculpture excelled and pushed the envelope in those media. France became the place to write, paint, sculpt and compose, a reputation it maintains. France is the most obvious example telling the importance of excellent culture and artistic output and those significant influences they have on the people of the country. In short excellent culture allowed France to rebound quickly and strive ahead.

When culture and art become idleness, slight entertainments, annoying diversions or amusing ephemera, it represents nothing more important than something produced on an assembly line – pieces of throw away stuff. How often do Americans hear about a one-time “priceless” work of modern sculpture sold for its scrap-metal value, like a Pentagon weapon system gone bad or an awry government computer program? Art is supposed to entire forever, not be dismissed because it has served its purpose: The artist [creator, originator or mechanic] has been paid and has garnered more commissions off the recognition of the sale. Yet Americans continue to treat music, painting, writing as something thrown against a wall, and if it sticks it will be there offending until it the environment forces it to fall off.

Culture allows a people to backstop problems, issues, events and potential solutions. It lets people retreat to what is good about the society, perhaps live a fantasy or a dream, while the pile emits its bad or good seeps from it. What has a solid footing and does not seem obviously derivative, inordinately temporary, brazenly artificial may survive, be accepted and become part of the lives of the people. But that seldom happens. Today what remains of art produced 10 years ago? About artists I know of, musicians, which pieces of music introduced in 2004 are played today other than franchise themes? Music to TV shows, ads, ditties on computers. The best anyone can say about America is that it is in a rut; it is at sea without an anchor. The backstop supposedly holding American culture is actually a canyon into which we empty more and more stuff. 

Alarmingly, Americans seek solice not in the excellence of human activity and production, but in religion, faith or secularized philosophy. No one can disagree with those individual choices, but they provide and afford few, if any, comprehensive solutions. Religion, faith and philosophy are terrific means to provide comfort to individual means and to guide individuals, but extending those belief systems are not conducive to acceptance or they are offensive to persons with contrary religions, faiths and philosophies. Imposing laws are to force compliance is coercive and debilitating. It results in less respect for law. Because law seems not to work, Americans attempt to rectify imperfections by voting solely for representatives who believe in their religion, faith or philosophical systems.

The so-called Right has justly been accused of voting this way. The so-called Left also votes this way. The commonality of Left and Right is the means of obtaining money and power, but no community remains – Right or Left. And there is no culture except a buzz, a ring, static, a din. And Americans are left to accept the meager entertainments coming to them cheaply and engaging them momentarily. None of it feeds the spirit, the enlightens the soul and fills the essence. None of it braces an individual for the uncertainly of tomorrow.