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Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Two recent experiences have brought me back to a somewhat irrational belief I have long held, that what great classical musicians do is magical, incomprehensible, and immensely admirable, whereas what I do is pedestrian and really not very difficult at all.  On Sunday, Susie and I, desperate for a movie to see, went to If I Stay, a forgettable film about a teen-age girl who plays the cello.  At one point, the actress is seen playing quite magnificently during a Juilliard audition [apparently, even though she studied cello for seven months to prepare for the role, in the end they digitally grafted her head onto the body of a real cellist -- an operation performed, I take it, without benefit of anaesthesia.]  Then, a few moments ago, as part of my preparation for playing Mozart's violin/viola duet K423 this afternoon with my fellow amateur, Susan Strobel, I went to YouTube and listened to David and Igor Oistrakh performing the piece while I followed along with the viola part on my lap.  My purpose in this exercise of self-flagellation was to find out what tempo they take the Adagio at, but I listened to the entire duet.  Needless to say, they play it beautifully.  The Adagio, by the way, is taken very slowly, with plenty of room to breathe, musically speaking.  Even the runs of sixteenth notes are allowed their full space.  I would not have given myself that much room, left to my own devices, so it is a good thing I listened to the Oistrakhs.

I studied the viola for eight years [in my middle sixties and early seventies] with the co-principal violist of the Springfield MA symphony, taking an hour and a half lesson a week and practicing at least an hour a day.  My teacher is a fine professional violist who is, it goes without saying, in an entirely different world from me when it comes to playing the viola.  Over time, it became clear to me that she views the playing of the viola as, in a manner of speaking, an assemblage of techniques that one can master with sufficient time and effort -- a smooth bow arm, a vibrato [which I have never conquered], double stops [which I did master, to my delight and astonishment], legato, staccato, spiccato, playing in the higher positions, and of course, that old stand-by, playing in tune.  [When I was a boy, studying the violin, I thought that playing in tune was something you had to be born with, like naturally curly hair.  Only as I approached my dotage did I discover one can actually learn to play in tune by listening to oneself and adjusting the position of one's fingers on the strings.  Pianists have it easy.  It is impossible to play the piano out of tune.]

Now, one can of course master all of this and still not be a Yo-Yo Ma or David Oistrakh or Pinchas Zuckerman.  But one can, in fact, with enough time and effort and discipline learn to play well enough to, let us say, earn a chair at the back of the viola section of a decent regional professional orchestra, which, by the way, is actually a very high standard these days.

My teacher, for her part, viewed my academic accomplishments with the greatest respect, even though in her studio I was the patzer and she the maîtresse.  I suspect that teaching Philosophy and writing serious books seemed as far beyond her as performing a Mozart duet creditably and beautifully seem to me.  I recall one year she was expressing anxiety about having to make some welcoming remarks to the gathering of her students and their families at their annual little  recital.  She was terrified of getting up in front of an audience, even that audience, and speaking -- something I had been doing many times a week for my entire adult life.  Meanwhile, I was going to my doctor for an Inderal prescription to control my heartbeat and shaking when I rose to play my little "piece."[[Inderal is a beta blocker, prescribed for serious heart problems, and I doubted my doctor would even consider giving me a prescription for so trivial a reason, but when I asked him, he agreed without hesitation, telling me that his wife, who was a professional musician, took it before every concert.]

Well, the obvious and natural response to all of this is to say, Yes, yes, each of us has the illusion that what other people do is marvelous and what we do is run-of-the-mill.  But I do not really believe it is an illusion.  I simply cannot escape from the conviction that the great concert violinists and violists, the great string quartet players, the great pianists are gods who have condescended to spend their lives among mortals rather than in Valhalla where they rightfully belong.

Now I must return to K423 and decide how close I can come without disaster to the tempo at which the Oistrakhs took the concluding Rondo.


Tony Couture said...

What piece of music/classical or otherwise would you put in front of Marx's book Capital, to symbolize or convey its meaning to our kind... what music captures Marx's meaning, if any, or would frame your interpretation of Marx's work?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good grief, what an impossible question to answer! Clearly not Bach's B Minor Mass, which is a transcendently beautiful affirmation of the existing order. Probably something by Beethoven that is extremely complex, dramatic, and beautiful, grounded in the forms of the music that precedes it while destroying those forms forever and reshaping them in new and more profound ways -- which means, I think, a late quartet -- say, Opus 130 with Der Grosse Fuge as the last movement. Yes. I think that would do very nicely.

Ludwig Richter said...

According to Bill Holm, when a journalist asked Halldor Laxness what book he would bring to a desert island, he replied, “The Well-Tempered Clavier. It contains everything.” By way of an explanation, Holm quotes Laxness' words from a radio interview:

"I have not lived a single day when I doubted the superiority of music to literature for expressing the revelation that the human mind experiences from the cosmos. I seldom hear music so bad that it does not tell me more than the spoken word."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Of course, one's first thought is to say, "How To Build A Raft With Your Bare Hands," but I appreciate the sentiment. It might be fun to speculate on what one CD one would bring assuming one had a solar powered CD player. The problem is deciding what one would be happy to hear played over and over again.

George Bernard Shaw, in Man and Superman, thought that the Devil would be playing Mozart -- he considered Hell a much more urbane place than heaven [but not, interestingly enough, thereby preferable.]

Tony Couture said...

Some professors play warm up music before the class to get the class active. Beethoven's Der Grosse Fuge is a very interesting choice. I was thinking something like Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. Billy Bragg or someone radical (in music) like Frank Zappa are also more Marx-like than Justin Bieber, Lady GaGa, etc. I also like Gil Scott Heron The Revolution will be televised....but hey the revolution needs a sound track to attract the next generations.

C Rossi said...

I'm glad to respond again after a time of debilitating but, alas, not life-threatening illness. I especially like your posts about music. This was a lovely analysis and appreciation of the effect on middling musicians (like me)of the the great players. I remember as a not so young graduate student trying to master the classical guitar at night after my daytime battles with Gottlob Frege, I went to Symphony Hall Chicago to see an aging (85+) Andres Segovia. He came on stage slowly and hesitantly carrying the guitar by the neck and almost falling on the seat. I remember thinking that they were taking advantage of the old man to make what they could from his fading art. He was a large man with big, almost fat fingers that seemed unable to play the repetoire selected for the program. He picked up the guitar and magic happened. The old unpliant fingers youthfully played the music of Sor and Bach, and I was relieved of my arrogant distain of the old man and luxiourated in the beauty of his art, an art that I would never attain. The place was silent, and the beauty of the music reigned.
However, not just the transcendent artistry of the player but the beauty of the played also inspires. The following video from Spain shows the effect of great music on all who come into contact. In this case, Beethoven's orchestration of Schiller's An Die Freude (which I first understood as Anne De Feude). Look at the faces of the children. This also responds to an old controversery on your blog: when does the conductor appear. How many players can play without the control of the conductor? This is lovely.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Welcome back, C. Rossi. I am very sorry to hear of the illness, but glad it was not life-threatening. We would very much miss your trenchant comments. I am familair with that extraordinary video, and have watched it several times. It is magical.