But seriously

What can you take seriously? This morning on Amsterdam Ave I saw a young man dressed like a catalog, in chic-prep regalia, being dragged back and forth on a leash by a small brown dog. The gravitas of his uniform was seriously undermined by this paradoxical power struggle, and other persons than me found it amusing, laughed as he passed; he was a spectacle. By his dress he seemed to take himself seriously, but life, at that moment, did not.

In assaying my various moods of the last seven days, chronicled in part on this site, my ability or desire to take things seriously has been a fascinating index. Staring out at the clouds of last week (which seem impossible on this sunny morning), I finally roused myself from the last cold dregs of a bowl of oatmeal and went to the piano, where my little spherical lamp shone especially weakly. It shone its yellowish light on the first page of Beethoven’s Op. 27 #1 in E-flat major, and with no particular warm-up, after just a couple desultory arpeggiated chords, I breathed and set out through the opening bars:

Though I adore this piece, I never found its opening movement to be particularly “serious” or profound; I had viewed it, I think properly, through the lens of play. The dialogue between right and left hands seemed over-simple in the manner of a Dr. Seuss rhyme, and this simplistic quality seemed like a smile, a joke, a pleasure of Beethoven, something he wants you to share his amusement with… (grammatically dubious? I welcome suggestions from blog readers.) One might even consider the movement a bit “silly.”

But in my cloudy mood, that morning, I found its silliness very serious: mirth with consequences. Perhaps I needed to take happiness more seriously? So while I had always enjoyed this music, this time it was more like a slaked thirst, as if E-flat major were a vitamin I were deficient in, and I had just swallowed a supplement. The very basic left hand scales seemed very expressive suddenly, invested with meaning as they criss-crossed from tonic to dominant, and now (you see) from this point onward this extra, more serious, meaning will be absorbed into my total concept of the piece, can never be erased or forgotten–even if I cannot ever totally recover it.

I just finished this last weekend playing the Franck Quintet for piano and strings, a piece which apparently many people have trouble taking seriously. Last season I played this work at the end of a tour in Sayville or Islip (I don’t quite remember) and a man afterwards said some very unkind things about the piece, in a tone of voice I cannot forgive. This kind of dismissiveness I find very upsetting. Suddenly it seemed to me the five of us had driven out in the rain in a rental car, very tired, had nearly gotten lost in Long Island, and had worked hard in an unpleasant-sounding hall to bring the piece across, and some jerk had to mouth off… I worked myself into an inner rage about this, and came as close as I ever had to yelling at someone backstage. The Franck Quintet is, anyway, the Franck Quintet; either you “buy it” or you don’t. And if you don’t buy it, don’t take it out on the musicians…

Perhaps I could have used the time playing the piece this weekend to indulge inner passions of my own, as indeed the Franck is awash in angst, but somehow connecting my inner moods to pieces I am playing seems to be a dangerous bet. I could take the Franck seriously, when I was practicing this weekend, as music, but when I tried to use it as therapy, I could only laugh. So: I would concentrate on simply the finger attacks, the relationships between the finger attacks, in the opening phrases; I would try to make the notes relate beautifully, and try to make the phrases not die but be longing fragments; I would think about the virtue of not doing too much ritard; I would try to get interesting, unearthly voicings in particular chords in the second movement… etc. And the deeper I delved away from “life,” the closer and more seriously my attention was engaged. The piece seemed to be laughable, as reality.

Phrases … sounds produced at the piano … seem to be “facts,” against which the contemplations of “real life” can seem like wishes or dreams. I can take a certain harmony seriously, while in life often it is hard to know what to take seriously. But then, if you don’t take certain things in life seriously, can your music making really be good? I have often wondered.

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One Comment

  1. DO
    Posted October 18, 2005 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    As this is the very same piece that has consumed me since the weekend (as played by Richard Goode), I’d like to venture that the childlike first theme becomes profound only when contrasted with the thunderous cascade that follows. But you knew that already. Is it possible that this piece is an emissary from Zeitgeist, since it has infected us both independently?

    While we’re on the subject, I want to share this line from Edmund Morris’s new biography: “When Beethoven improvised at the piano, he suppurated with melody.”

    If this sentence prompts you to consult the dictionary, as it did me, learn from my experience and make sure you don’t do it while eating.

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