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Monday, December 9, 2013


My efforts to find or form a string quartet have thus far failed to produce results.  Rather than just put the viola away for another five and a half years, however, I have decided to continue practicing until I can find someone to play with me.  My first choice has been a wonderful Mozart duet for violin and viola, K423.  I went to the Shar Music website and ordered the sheet music.  Several days ago it arrived, and I have started learning the first movement.

This is serious music, not like the little Haydn duets I pulled out and played through two weeks ago.  One of my treasured CDs is a recording of Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman playing violin/viola duets, the first of which on the CD is K423.  As you might expect, their performance is to die for.

Now, let us be perfectly clear.  There is no discernible musical relationship between what I am doing and Zuckerman's playing of the viola part in K423.  Or rather, there is, I suppose, something like the relationship between the Form of a Bed and a drawing of a physical bed, which, as Plato tells us, is at a third remove from the Form.  Still and all, as I get the sixteenth note runs under my fingers and work out manageable fingerings for the double stops, I begin to achieve some facility, and as I play through the movement, in my head I can hear Perlman playing the violin part along with me. 

Why, you might ask, do I bother, inasmuch as I will never play this one duet well enough even to perform it for anyone else, let alone match the performance of Perlman and Zuckerman?  It is rather hard to explain.  One reason is that studying something like K423 gives me an insight into what Mozart was doing that I, at least, cannot acquire merely from listening to it.  Oh, I can hear when Mozart moves into the development section, and when he returns to the statement of the original theme, but it is quite different actually to feel the sense of recognition [and relief] as I reach the restatement after a page and a half and get to play again the notes I have already mastered.

I have taken to starting each rather brief practice session by playing the series of twelve three-octave major scales, C major to B major.  [Well, to be honest, I cannot quite play the very last notes of the third octave of the B major scale since I am so high up on the A string that my left hand is wrapped around the body of the viola like a boa constrictor, my thumb locked under the neck of the instrument.  Fortunately, no one ever writes those notes for a viola part.]  On the first day of practicing, I play every note on a different bow.  The next day, I play two notes on a bow, the day after that three notes on a bow, and so on until on the twelfth day of practicing I play the series of twelve scales twelve notes on a bow.  [Seven notes on a bow and eleven notes on a bow are rather tricky to keep in your head.]  If I am being really serious, as I was back when I lived in Massachusetts, I then spend twelve days in the same rotation playing natural minor scales, then twelve days of melodic minor scales, and twelve days of harmonic minor scales.  Finally, I play one day of scales in which I play the C major scale one note on a bow, the C sharp natural minor scale two notes on a bow, the D melodic minor scale three notes on a bow, the D sharp harmonic minor scale four notes on a bow, and so on through three rotations, ending with the B harmonic minor scale twelve notes on a bow.  Later today I will play the major scales three notes on a bow.  There is something very peaceful about those scales. [Fortunately, I am no longer in psychotherapy, because if I ever told all of this to an analyst, I would be diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and put on medication.]


Jerry Fresia said...

While your story of learning the mechanics, as it were, is fascinating (I'm still trying to fathom how playing notes with a bow differs from striking a keyboard), I'm more curious about what playing the music (once you get to it) does for you as you play it. After all, there is a lot of work going into this, so what's the payoff? Or maybe I should ask this: suppose you were technically perfect, you still wouldn't rival Perlman and Zuckerman, would you? What is the "music"?

Is the language, "to die for," reserved for such things as being moved by music or could you use the same phrase in relationship to, say, reading Kant?

C Rossi said...

Prof. Wolff:
I very much enjoy your posts about the joys and woes of an amateur violist. Your discussion of the string quartet brought back memories of an extended college cafeteria debate on intelligent collective action. A friend, a biology professor, made the case that the string quartet is the highest form of human intelligent action because the players without a conductor act autonomously and freely but with complete individual and collective submission to the musical score. I wondered why he limited his argument to the quartet; there are lovely Mozart quintets; Mendelsohn wrote a stirring octet, and one of my favorite pieces of music is Tchaikovsky’s sextet Souvenir de Florence. I also wondered whether there was a limit to the number of players who could as he argued act autonomously and in intelligent coordination.

This old debate came back recently when I attended a concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yitzhak Perlman. The first two pieces Beethoven romances for violin and orchestra in which Maestro Perlman was both soloist and conductor. He sat with the violin section and when not playing the solo parts conducted with his bow. I know the orchestra well, and these two pieces seemed rather loose, and not up to the group’s usual standard; they dragged a bit. It was good but disappointing. Perlman then mounted a double podium (with great effort to lever one leg up with the aid of a crutch and then pivoting on the planted crutch to swing the other uncooperative leg up to the podium and to his seat; as virtuoso a performance as his playing) and sat above the orchestra in the middle of the ensemble and conducted Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, and Brahms’s old chestnut the rousing Academic Festival Overture. These pieces were wonderfully played, and Perlman worked the orchestra beautifully with baton, hand, and face from the opening string piece to the closing gaudeamus igitur in Brahms, and all present did rejoice. Is the orchestra the limiting case for autonomous coordination or is the whole argument flawed? Does it need a conductor above it to coordinate the players with the music?

The second question reminds me of the Federico Fellini film “Orchestra Rehearsal” in which the orchestra is, like post-war Italy, riven by factions, left and right (at one point the union stops the rehearsal). The conductor (interestingly German, whereas the players are all Italian) is driven from the podium and chaos reigns. The conductor returns and order seems to obtain. The film ends as the conductor raises his baton and says “Da capo.”