I fled Twitter. It was a depressing stream of people saying how wonderful their last concert was, that they just loved playing with so-and-so, etc. etc. It’s not that I don’t want people to be happy, I’m just allergic to the eternal electronic happy-face. At times, I’ve overcompensated with meditations on misery–which is taking the other easy way out. But, I suppose I have a rationale: first drain the glamour of the musician’s life, dim the halo, then let the glamour of the “music itself” shine forth!

Hypocritically however, I just can’ t help gloating what a fantastic, splendiferous week I had playing Mozart with the St. Louis Symphony led by Nic McGegan. I loved it, loved them. They played with such openness and elation: that’s what certain Mozart tuttis are about, don’t you think, a kind of elation, celebrating the appearance or resurgence of the themes? (The pianist finishes a cadential figure, trilling, and the orchestra chimes in: yes yes, all that and more.) A very short and smiley violinist from the orchestra said, “It’s all about the possibilities of C major, what C major means” and she was so right: the thrilling ascending sequences, the crunch of certain intervals, little bumps but a lot of things that are just plain, standing in front of you, in other words no “black keys” of complication.

She and I geeked out about Mozart, blissfully, over a basket of homemade potato chips with a pot of beer and cheddar sauce which my doctor would sincerely prefer I not eat.

In other words, everything would have been perfect if some [expletive] program note author hadn’t started off thus: “K 415 is something of an odd bird, and has suffered abuse from various musicologists [unnamed]” then proceeded to list these anonymous complaints, and then—naturally—compared the work to the more sublime late Mozart. Sometimes that word sublime really bugs me. I swear, if we knew more about Mozart’s complexion, we would compare the sublimity of his zits.

Poor me! From the moment I walk on stage, I have to defend the work from the abuse of the program annotator. The listeners feel from the get-go they are getting a lesser meal, and they have not come to The Symphony to eat McDonalds.

It’s ridiculous and sad and stupid to have to defend a piece of such freshness and beauty. If the PNW (program note writer) had only managed to mention the very first entrance of the piano, for God’s sake. (Excuse me while I go beat my head against the wall.) My theory is that the piano is an instigator. Look at various entrances in classical concertos: there is often something “wrong” about them, something afoot, they come in too soon or too late, they take an awfully long time about something or they rush into things, they’re too simple, too innocent … There’s almost always a wink, a trick, a leap in there somewhere, something teasing, as if the orchestra were a big brother to be slightly mocked.

Maybe you begin to feel the orchestra has been going on too long? The tutti finishes off often a bit pompously, with a fanfare or two. The piano punctures pomposity. The piano’s a thief come to steal boredom.

In 415 the piano-instigation begins right away: with two trills, syncopated, troublemaking against the beat …


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Awfully close together, mildly complex to play, a bit hyperactive … twittering “D goes to C, D goes to C” … These compressed, quick trills with their kinetic energy generate a leap up to G:

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Marvelous: but what to do with this G on the weak beat? The answer is fairly predictable, gravitational, we fall back down to the C we started with:


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Fine. But heads up, here comes the fakeout:


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Ha. Which of course is the reversal of the trills. You thought D went to C, well now C goes to D, with a naughty C# in the middle, boldfacing the joke: Mozart is laughing with you, at his silly game of do and re. At this exact moment, the left hand leaps into the situation, leaving its Alberti station … creating a sudden rush of events in the place where the phrase “should” be demurely resolving. Naughtiness filling what should be a polite piece of punctuation.

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Even if the PNW can’t bring himself to put into words the infectious mirth of the piano opening, this distilled essence of Mozart, the ONE thing you simply CANNOT neglect to mention about the first movement, the defining oddity, the magic-making curveball, is the SECOND THEME. (Beating my head against the wall again, sorry.) This theme doesn’t appear in the orchestral tutti, for the simple reason that it is not by nature “orchestral”: it belongs to a more intimate realm, it’s an idea for one person, not a mass. And unless you are a heartless person, PNW, you must take notice, somehow give homage to the way this theme gets slightly trapped in E minor, like a fly in the flypaper of melancholy:wpid-secondtheme-2011-10-23-19-56.jpg

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… one of Mozart’s most beautifully artless themes. The structure is just 2 + 2 + 4, the simplest symmetrical thing in the world, but the first 2 bar bit drifts into E minor and gets marooned, leaving us to stare at E minor in bars 3 and 4. Then the second half of the theme … simply, beautifully, gradually, in the breadth of its four bars, with an arching melody, wakes us up and out…

Although this theme is in G major, it is “C major-ish” in its lack of concealment; it stares you right in the face; it subjects itself easily to dissection, but thereby loses none of its mystery or power. There’s no elision, there are no hidden joints, no inner voices concealing their subtle workings from us: just these phrases plain as day, doing what they do, the play of E minor against the “real key” … a cloud passing over G major and burning off again.

What’s more, this theme affects the “emotional structure” of the whole exposition …

                1) charm of the opening, wit, laughter
                2) passagework moving us to new key
                3) sudden melancholy, lyricism, bittersweetness
                4) passagework laughing the melancholy off.

Call me a hopeless Romantic, PNW, but I feel that the melancholy of the second theme infects or flavors the laughing surrounding material. I feel you can view the whole exposition at once, in a flash, seeing all the disparate emotions—and from this vantage point it hits you … that the comic material revolves around the seriousness of the second theme, as a center from which it takes profundity and pleasure.

One last thing that the PNW should definitely have mentioned, the single most important thing. As I arrived at the bar with the not so healthy potato chips, a very nice person I know ambushed me: “that last movement, it’s not really Mozart, right?” she said, with savage emphasis on really, as if, come on. I couldn’t help feeling she was emboldened by the PNW to talk this way, to presume to know what’s “really” Mozart. Grr. There I was in my world, where this movement was the most Mozartean thing imaginable, and there was her world across the beer-laden table: where transgression makes it “not Mozart.” The word really kept echoing in my head, unhappily.

She was upset by the Adagios in the last movement, which is the most marvelous weird thing that the PNW didn’t even find time to talk about. The rondo is just bouncing along, rollicking even, when Mozart interrupts these messages (his own messages!) to bring you an emergency announcement. Fermata, sudden slam on of the brakes, silence of suspense. Out of the blue: a lament in C minor, the piano in full diva over a lost love or something or other. Now, it’s patently ridiculous to have a depressive attack in the middle of a frolic; what Mozart is writing, therefore, is a joke tragedy. A giggling lament. It’s just beautiful enough that you might for a moment be seduced by it, drawn into its spell, briefly forget that we are in the rondo.

To write sadness satirically, with a twinkle in your eye, is truly wicked. Naughty Mozart!

This Adagio rings twice, like the postman. Once near the beginning, and again near the end. After this second minor episode Mozart pulls out a double whammy of genius, piling weirdness upon weirdness. Let’s just point out that each and every phrase of the rondo theme ends with a little blip, tag, suffix:


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… which of course is quite charming and silly. Out of this silliness comes Mozart’s master stroke: the last time we hear the theme, after this second tragic Adagio, suddenly this suffix multiplies itself, takes over, becomes an obsession, distributes itself through the orchestra, aww hell, let’s let some Brit explain it:

this fragment, tossed between piano and orchestra and multiplied ad infinitum, sails though the whole coda like a flight of fairies in a darkening wood …

Well put, Cuthbert Morton Girdlestone! The blip goes bananas, becomes a murmuring, a continuous laughter, and fragments of the theme echo, ever quieter, ever quieter …

A more beautiful joke could hardly be imagined. After the ridiculous lament comes the most serious, meaningful laughter. So often in the classical composers, the profound thing comes through the deflation of a false profundity, a pomposity punctured …. no not this claptrap, Beethoven says, but if I change one thing about it, slightly alter the proportions, sabotage the usual harmony somehow … there it is. Here too, Mozart directs our attention away from all kinds of normal possible endings, away from the Adagio’s temptations, away from convention itself to the transcendent possibilities of an idiotic suffix. Allowing the laughter to vanish into nothing, Mozart gives the feeling/illusion that it continues forever, eternally. A mirth that overcomes everything—lament, melancholy, fanfare–with its more profound insight, its fleeting permanence. And that, my friends, is really Mozart. Now hand me another potato chip before someone gets hurt.

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Taking on Taruskin

Interview time. You go to the local public radio station, everything seems to put you at your ease. They’re charming, they wear sweaters, they hand you terrible painful coffee in a styrofoam cup, they ask you how you are. There is an sense of beneficent NPR hovering over everything. Then, the microphone turns on, and they hit you hard: “What exactly do you do,” they ask, “when you’re not playing the piano?” Aww man, I just woke up, don’t ask me to justify my existence. How I wish I had some fascinating hobby like cheese curdling, ballooning, breeding wolves! How can I explain that most of my life not playing the piano is spent in recovery from playing the piano? “Actually,” I say, “I love to read.” A mist of boredom fills the room. “Well,” sigh, “what are you reading now?” and I am forced to admit the devastating truth: “I’m reading some musicological essays by Richard Taruskin.” The interviewer gazes at me with such pity, deep marveling pity.

My Kindle also pities me. Each time I order a new book I can hear it saying “really? really? that’s what you think your life needs right now? … I use the word ‘life’ loosely …” And then I put it to sleep, where it still mocks me, I’m sure, in the sub-ether of gadgetry.

There I was, nerdily paging through the Mozart section of Taruskin’s Text and Act, giggling at its gratuitous insults, when I came across:

For us today, Don Giovanni, say, is not just the opera Mozart and da Ponte knew, bearing only the meanings it had for them and for the audience that greeted it in Prague two centuries ago. Don Giovanni is also something E.T.A. Hoffmann has known and construed, and Kierkegaard, and Charles Rosen, and Peter Sellars. Its meaning for us is mediated by all that has been thought and said about it since opening night, and is therefore incomparably richer than it was in 1787.

A very beautiful, hopeful, interesting, false thing to say. Bewitching fallacies are everywhere. As a foil, how about the famous passage from Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the moment when Murray and the narrator drive past miles of premonitory billboards to the Most Photographed Barn in America:

We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.” …

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said.  “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns?  We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures.  We can’t get outside the aura.  We’re part of the aura.  We’re here, we’re now.”

Let’s say the barn is Don Giovanni.

For starters, Taruskin’s assertion sets up a really bad binary: richer/poorer. I am surprised he let himself be tempted by it. Is a meaning richer when there’s more of it? Does a work’s meaning automatically increase as we add interpretations to it? The image Taruskin is painting is that “all that has been thought and said” somehow magically gets piled on the work of art: it amasses wisdom, associations, it grows and grows, like certain alien beings in science fiction which draw detritus into themselves, and thereby become ever greater monsters, ever more powerful beings.

Another problem is that Taruskin fails to distinguish between things said about Don Giovanni that are stimulating and interesting, and things that are entombing, distancing, destroying. Actually we need not be black-and-white. There’s a continuous spectrum from stimulating to entombing; perhaps the most middling comments are the most dangerous of all.

There can be destructive interference of meaning, meanings which in their profusion cancel each other out.

I suppose this is a silly example, but I recall taking a course in Mozart’s Operas in Bloomington, Indiana, with an unnamed professor. He began the class by reading to us the New Grove Biography of Mozart in his mellifluous monotone. This took three sessions. It was not mellifluous, by the way, but it was virtuosically inexpressive, and would have been hilariously boring, had it not been 8 am and we all crammed in the fluorescent desks of hell. The smell of this room stays with me, mold, chalk, overhead projector lamp heat, I feel I can almost smell the New Grove Biography of Mozart, as the smell of that room fuses with the monotone of the voice and my fuzzy head and the sense of data, dates, data, data, dusty data floating until it finds its home on a multiple choice exam, there to be guessed at. (To this day I am terrified of Mozart’s biography.) I felt insulted, infantilized even, by this lecture style, and refused to take notes. But my housemate Sasha sitting next to me was furiously scribbling and scribbling. Sometime in the second day, a bit flabbergasted by his diligence, I glanced over to see what the heck was going on. There I read: “Mozart’s goat Nannerl dies; replaced by new goat, also named Nannerl. New Nannerl subsequently writes minuet.” I laughed out loud, abruptly, caught by delicious Mozartean surprise. I destroyed the non-mood of the classroom, caught a withering glare from the professor, but my faith in life was restored. In these pages of falsified facts, in their gleeful irreverence, there was more of Mozart than you could find in the entire New Grove Biography.

And let us not forget (Taruskin, I’m talking to you) that the world is more than reading Kierkegaard, or pondering Sellars productions; there is plenty of cultural noise, not related to the work at hand, that mediates meaning in weird ways. For instance, when I was growing up, there was a commercial—perhaps you know it—in which certain household pets sing a descending four-note figure, not melismatically, but syllabically. Inescapably, this commercial is imprinted on my mind, genetically fused with those four notes, and so every time I play the Franck Sonata, and I come to the last movement with its repeated four note descending figures … at least one of these measures I sing to myself: meow meow meow meow. I just cannot help it! . My interpretation has a certain deranged feline intensity, I cough up hairballs of ecstasy. Sometimes I fantasize that we will be playing along, very seriously, in some dour venue, just another violin recital, when suddenly at that moment thousands of cats will come on stage, fireworks, jazz hands, etc. etc. Classical music is saved!

If you think that entire last paragraph was a silly, gratuitous plug for my upcoming CD of the Franck with Joshua Bell on Sony, you are a cynical perceptive person.

OK, let’s get serious again. Taruskin’s vision omits a central human fact: that we forget (Roland Barthes: “it is precisely because we forget that we read.”) We can add information to our understanding, but old information is always crumbling away. Meaning is not additive; this is true individually and collectively.

Let’s say you go to a talk on Don Giovanni … then you hear a recording of Don Giovanni, but weirdly the performance seems to conflict with what the lecture said. Are you disappointed by the lecture or the performance? Some years later you are listening to Don Giovanni, and you vaguely remember the gist of the lecture, or more likely a line or two, and this vague recollection merges uncomfortably with the new hearing, is this the same piece? Actually your favorite moments of the piece turn out to be the ones you forgot were there; that is, you learned more from surprise than from knowledge.

I once went to a lecture on the A Minor Mozart Sonata by a great musical mind, the thesis of which was “is it permissible to take time at measure X of the first movement?” Seriously: the 45 minute lecture was to diagnose whether a small amount of license could be applied in one measure. One of my favorite measures. My reaction then and now, my perpetually immature instinct, is to take a truly spectacular amount of time there, just because some dude (who is brilliant) tried to tell me I needed permission to do it. Did that lecture add meaning or did that act of hyper-attention (like all the lined-up photographers) limit my ability to see? Does everything that has been said about Mozart contribute to his meaning for us? Or does the profusion of essays and interpretations sometimes lead to nausea, exhaustion, blindness, ennui? Does Taruskin ever think to himself on the morning of a conference, “Oh God if I have to hear Susan McClary explain another modulation in Schubert as a symbol of anal fixation I think I might just kill myself”?

We wouldn’t play this amazing music without craving ever greater understanding, without wanting to delve. But eventually the knowledge clutters up the room; we need a spring cleaning to see the work anew (but with the knowledge still lurking back there somewhere). We dream, so to speak, of a clean room informed by its former filth.

I guess I’m verbosely fleshing out a feeling here, that the process of being in touch with the meaning of an artwork isn’t essentially additive, or cumulative. It is something more beautiful and maddening, more a kind of ebb and flow, an adding on and sloughing off, like a snake, or a butterfly. You keep trying to return to that state where you “see” …. You add on layers, layers, like a cocoon, but then suddenly one day you scratch at one spot (perhaps that piece of information no longer seems important, relevant) and that spot widens, because you see the work more clearly now that you have begun to clear away the cocoon… gradually you are naked again, vulnerable, alive. Your skin feels raw. The work feels new. The work means something to you again; at one level you have forgotten everything you learned.

Let’s be fair to Taruskin. His larger point: it’s dubious to try to get to the “original” meaning of Don Giovanni, it’s impossible for starters, but also we would lose all the wonderful thinking that’s been done about the piece since then! Maybe it would be a shame to lose all that thought, but doesn’t he see why one would want to? I’d draw a connection between the desire to recreate the “original sense” of Don Giovanni and the desire to hear it as you heard it the very first time: both Fantasies of Fresh Ears. Moreover … If you think about it, shocks in Don Giovanni, shocks in Beethoven, the continuous switching of dynamics, mood, texture of the classical style: don’t these seem like ways to get the listener to listen newly, to build chained moments of reborn attention into the musical fabric? The music we have entombed, enshrined so profoundly is also the music that begs us to hear it the most freshly.

To balance all my unfairly negative examples of musical talks, I’d like to recall a wonderful lecture given by Michael Oehlbaum at Marlboro, on the last three Beethoven Sonatas. The thing is I remember very little of it. I remember he said, or more like chanted, “Beethoven again visits one of his trenchant anomalies upon the world!!!” He raised a foreboding finger like Moses on the mountaintop. And I laughed, yes, I thought, trenchant anomaly!, thunderbolt of weirdness, everything goes funny for a moment, then you’re back on the road, but something crucial has shifted, you’re not sure what. That is what Beethoven can be like, that is how he mirrors common experience and at the same time creates his own surreal world. The other thing I remember was Oehlbaum’s explanation of the theme of the last movement of Op. 109: “it’s as if Beethoven looks at you very seriously, earnestly in the face and says, the Tonic goes to the Dominant.” Then he played the gorgeous theme, saying dryly over it “one goes to five” each two bars, and it was oddly funny but so beautiful too, this theme which appears kaleidoscopic is at heart a repeated harmonic cliché. It’s astonishing (almost disturbing) how Beethoven hid a seesaw behind such ravishing beauty.

This insight is contagious; I use it (plagiarist that I am) at masterclasses everywhere, and the students always sprout a smile of surprise and pleasure—not bad for music theory!

I was so delighted and inspired by this talk that I didn’t expect David Soyer to throw cold cynical water on it. Oehlbaum was demonstrating subtle motivic connections between the “anomalies” of the last three Sonatas, and Soyer, who sang with such tenderness in rehearsals, said quite roughly “Couldn’t it all just be a coincidence, I mean, do you really think the composer meant all that crap?“ (He may not have said crap, but boy he meant it.) There was an undercurrent in the room of agreement. It seemed sad to me, this guy had travelled all the way up from New Jersey just to share his insights, and there it was, his insights were resented. I wanted to blame a certain Curtis mindset. But later I felt the impulse for his outburst wasn’t resentment, but a parental protectiveness, a fear that music is throttled by endless consideration.

I don’t believe this; I don’t think thought and music are enemies, obviously … but they are complicated friends. We can only keep Don Giovanni alive by playing it, thinking about it, writing about it, talking about it. But in a sense we also keep burying it under our interpretations, and we have to keep digging it out again. It never stops.

Morning after four days of recording. Awoke intensely dazed in the guest room of E’s house. Pleasantly dazed, relieved. (If only I could apply this relief after the task to the task itself.) Sleep caked in eyes. In boxers and T-shirt I wandered out to the living room, waking up two dachshunds and E. The dachshunds ran about abruptly delighted by the morning and I schlumped to the kitchen island. E walked the dogs. She began frying bacon. She does not need to ask me how I like my eggs. Burnt smell of toast. The recording finished, a great project off my mind. A plate arrived in front of me, munch munch. No, no hot sauce. Barefoot, gripping coffee, I padded out to the deck without saying anything and sat looking at the trees. I’d brought with me Nabokov’s short stories, without really thinking about it, for no reason, and read:

At some distance, Schramm, poking into the air with the leader’s alpenstock, was calling the attention of the excursionists to something or other; they had settled themselves around on the grass in poses seen in amateur snapshots, while the leader sat on a stump, his behind to the lake, and was having a snack. Quietly, concealing himself in his own shadow, Vasiliy followed the shore, and came to a kind of inn. A dog still quite young greeted him; it crept on its belly, its jaws laughing, its tail fervently beating the ground …

The room itself had nothing remarkable about it. On the contrary, it was a most ordinary room, with a red floor, daises daubed on the white walls, and a small mirror half filled with the yellow infusion of the reflected flowers—but from the window one could clearly see the lake with its cloud and its castle, in a motionless and perfect correlation of happiness. Without reasoning, without considering, only entirely surrendering to an attraction the truth of which consisted in its own strength, a strength which he had never experienced before, Vasiliy in one radiant second realized that here in this little room with that view, beautiful to the verge of tears, life would at last be what he had always wished it to be. What exactly it would be like, what would take place here, that of course he did not know …

I’ve read a ton of Nabokov. How could he surprise me? But I was ambushed by this sincerity, by cynical knowledgeable Nabokov resting hope in this simple room and its view, refuge from the cynical world. (The others are photographing, but only Vasiliy is seeing). I shivered with admiration for this beautiful writing, I was darkly jealous of his genius, but simultaneously, I was in love with him (again, anew).

Meanwhile: breeze, waving trees, morning without agenda. The paper page present, tactile. I wiggled my toes happily. I burped bacon. I held on to the moment, I inhaled, I tried to become a sponge for experience, I didn’t know how long this magical newness would last.

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Love is Complicated

Sinister logistical warnings. Wherever we were going, the word was, it was hard to park, get there before the crowd if you can. And so I hugged the people who had just played one of the towering masterpieces of Western Civilization pretty quickly, let fly a few seconds of sincerity, ran for the elevators. My vroom became an ooze on the second floor, where a bunch of post-Mahler people boarded, I was crushed in a corner by Mahler nuts, enthusiasm is a wonderful thing. Then the elevator dumped us in a confusing connector hallway, and I milled with a herd of kvelling mezzo-sopranos through various corners, out (buzz) through a security lobby, and then—this was the part that depressed me—down yet another elevator, down down into the dark, oil-smelling garage.

In the hall we used to use, you’d play, well or poorly, you’d push through a pair of double doors and then you were out … there was a gravel stairway going down away, some grass, and some very tall pine trees. I’ll admit the highway was right there behind the stand of trees, but its rustling could have been a river. If you wanted it to be. And behind the tall pines, pining off towards the north, the sky with the sun slowly leaving it. You could stand there, and there was distance, which made things beautiful, even highway access roads, and staring off after each concert you had a kind of feeling of leave-taking. I remember once standing there after playing Beethoven Op. 70 #2 and someone came up and said something nice about it, and really one of the things I want most in the world is to play a beautiful Op. 70 #2, and I stood there watching the sky and pines with love which is hard to come by. A peevish, urgent nostalgia is for me the essential feeling of Seattle.

Back to parking. Although the party house was in an area I parked in every day to get my coffee, somehow at night this seemed impossible. Crammed cars, driveways, mysteriously painted curb … The directions said balloons on the gate but I saw no balloons on any gates. On either side, shadowy walkers, a mix of hipsters and concert attendees. Which would guide me? Finally E came out of nowhere, saying dude, park over there somewhere, a ways.

Walking from the distant parking space the street seemed darker, more tree-overhung, a truly strange lane, and I felt a bit unsorted perhaps because of the fat burner supplement I’d added to my smoothie in the gym earlier.

So that when I was silhouetted in the doorway, walking into the welcoming light, I was unprepared for onslaught. Just there on the threshold I asked “is this the place”? and they said yes. Still no balloons, don’t know why I was obsessed with the balloons. I stared at their nametags for reference.

“You know what really stands out about you?”

I paused my entering process to smile. As a performer I feel utterly inadequate at receiving the compliment and I just spew thank you thank you until I feel like an idiot, no matter how much I am showered with kindness.

“Your wonderful explanations,” she continued, “everyone talks about them.”

My smile became imperceptibly more plastered on. “Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much.” And she went on about how informative they were, how helpful, how etc. The other lady then joined in. “You know what I else I love? …” she paused I think, “your facial expressions, they are so wonderful, so expressive.”

At some point I realized they had been complimenting me for two or three whole minutes without in any way whatsoever addressing my actual piano playing. It was a virtuoso performance. And let me say how nice they were/are and absolutely I am sure they had no intention of being rude, rather the total opposite, this was all completely unintentional or even pan-intentional but therefore perhaps even more deadly. At least in my current state, which had something to do with a smoothie and perhaps a bit to do with the Manhattans I had drunk the night before.

“Thank you so much,” I said. “Meanwhile, I’m just starving, just really need some food.” This was the natural, polite exit strategy from the conversation and one they and I both wished for, I had the feeling, and it fit hilariously into the stereotype of the Hungry Musician, so they pointed me with smiles to the right, to the dining room.

I smiled. Then I went straight to the left, and stood around by myself, averting my eyes from them though they were a mere ten feet away. I swear I did this. I didn’t do it to be rude either, although in retrospect it seems like one of the transparently rudest things I have ever ever done. Can I apologize now? It was because of the supplement. I caught my breath a little, loosened the smiling muscles from their rigor. But soon a man came up to me, a jolly man, he said “you know that talk you gave about Ives?”

He was referring to a quip-filled intro I’d done ten years ago. It was to explain the idea behind the Ives Piano Trio and for some reason it ended up on the compilation highlights CD of the Seattle Chamber Music Festival and it came up a lot. Honestly, I was delighted that it was loved, on the other hand, it represented a Glory Moment of Wit that I could never recapture. (Peevish nostalgia, yo.) “Yes of course I do,” I said, smile muscles back in their grooves. These days when I smile a small wrinkle appears below one eye.

“That was a great talk.”

“I’m so glad” (variation on thank you). I really was glad, I was proud of that talk, I’ll admit it.

“I bet you I could do that talk from memory right now.”

Wow, that was a lot. “Haha, Good Lord,” I said, and was continuing, “that’s impress …”

But he cut me off. “I never listen to the piece, but I listen to the talk over and over and over.”

Smack, whap, the death blow. Magnificent! One had to admire how he wound up to the (completely unintentional?) slam. The entire PURPOSE of the talk had been to suggest or encourage a love or affection for the piece to follow, but for reasons unknown, karmic reasons, the thing had backfired, boomeranged, misfired, I’d been too clever by half, and now the talk had become more important than the piece itself, and this also became an insult to poor innocent Ives, whose Trio is still the best, most interesting, sincere and wacky piano trio yet written by an American, in my humble opinion. As I smiled like an airport Starbucks employee with their manager over their shoulder, I thought I will never explain anything ever again.

“Well, I’m so glad you enjoyed it.” I stumbled away, took a dumpling from a tray for no reason of hunger. I was bleeding. These people here at this party were the Paganinis of the wounding compliment. Actually (I reflected) it had even started earlier when I’d wandered out to the lobby at intermission. The new maestro was there in the lobby, and since we had worked together the summer before, he gave me a lovely hug which felt a very sincere greeting, a musician’s greeting to a musician. I was reading too much into it, surely, but it was very nice. Also very nice of him to come to the concert, it made me feel immediately like apologizing for clearly not totally being at my best, though I wasn’t going to mention the smoothie. He was introducing me to his wife, when another regular concertgoer of SCMF rather blatantly interrupted.

“Did you say,” he paused, “you were going to record those last pieces you played?” He was referring to the Ligeti Etudes which I attempted to play from memory for the first time earlier that evening.

“Yes,” I said, forced to choose between totally ignoring this new person and rudely interrupting my existing conversation, and choosing wrongly.

He looked confused for a moment. I had an escape opportunity, which I failed to take. He continued: “Is there … a … a market for something like that?” Yes, market was the epicenter of his sentence, the essence of what he had to say. Here at a f&*#ing classical music concert! In the lobby surrounded by all the plaques with all the names of all the people who gave their money on faith and out of love to keep this thing barely afloat. I think I did pretty well considering. “Well, we’ll find out!” I said, jokey, smiley, just letting it all be funny, how financially disastrous it all is, how absurd.

The maestro was no fool, he made his escape, threw me a see you later gesture. My guy looked at me another three seconds, stupefied. Then a bit slowly, “You’re saying … there’s a market for that sort of thing?” As if I hadn’t suffered enough, smiled bravely enough, turning it into a joke, no, he wanted me to really let that lack of marketability sink in, let the poison of un-profit seep through my veins. “If you say so” he eventually said. He wanted me to acknowledge it, how ridiculous that anyone would ever, ever want to listen to that music, ever smack down cash or plastic for something so profoundly impossible, silly, like … It struck me later how he translated his distaste for Ligeti (whose name he did not think worth remembering) into monetary terms, the thoughts of an accountant, and he actually interrupted me to do this.

Back to the party.

I don’t really need to eat after concerts, since I eat rapaciously—even disgustingly—before each and every performance, but there I was on the patio, chewing kale salad. Often the food at these things is so beautiful, I think of all the loving effort put into it, I feel sorry for it just sitting there. This transitions seamlessly into wondering how delicious it might be. In short, a combination of pity and gluttony makes me eat.

As you can imagine, I had some despair on the patio as I ate my unnecessary food, despair of the purpose of saying anything. I was repulsed by my expressive expressions and my helpful explanations. I realized I was terrified of my audience, not when I was playing for them, but immediately afterwards, that they would destroy my bubble, show me it was made of self-delusion.

Everyone was chatting, chairs were moved, drinks were fetched, and in the middle of all these party noises, all the logistics, the scraping of the chairs on the flagstones, I was visited by memories of pre-concert details: ironing my shirt, making sure I had food in place, looking for cufflinks which I didn’t need, worrying where my music was, fretting if my clothes satisfied the new dress code, remembering a fingering I had forgotten …. A silly meaningless mantra started up inside me: this is not a dinner, but a din, this is not a dinner but a din. The din was anything, surface noise, insecurity, the continuous scratchy distraction, the sip of chardonnay, the fake smile, that made it impossible to be back in the lamplit room with piano in fantasyland … door closed, cup of coffee on shelf nearby, just you and the voiceleading, you and two stubbornly meaningful notes which don’t want to give up their meaning to just any old way of playing them.

On the patio, I wished myself away to a place in the Brahms Clarinet Trio, which is not a place and has no patio.

Let’s go there, you and I, to the 3rd movement, where Brahms, after all the Beethovenian Bother, after all the years and years of working out motives and teasing out abstruse musical thoughts, seems to admit without regret that there’s nothing better or purer than a waltz. It’s all there, the easy phrases, flowing one to the other, sighing, growing/blossoming like flowers.

What can you say about that? Brahms says.

Having written a delicious charming wistful waltz would seem to be self-evident. But here, in the coda, we’ve waltzed, we’ve ländlered, we’ve danced through time, and now—Brahms says—this is what I have to say about waltzing, this is what I’ve learned and actually there is only a short time to say it now, because the end of the movement (or death or night) is coming and there won’t be time to say anything anymore. Compressing or compressed—it’s hard to know which, either confined by the pressure of having to say before it’s too late or simply because what he has to say is by its very nature distilled—Brahms utters this last best thing.

He slows the tempo down. The slowing seems to mean listen closely. These notes (he says) are not going to be easy, simple, they will not flow in easy threes like the others, but they have something to say about the others too.

And then he folds everything in an embrace. He heads out to the edges of the keyboard, hugging all possible other pitches between widespread hands. For a moment the embrace is major-ish, (D-F#-A-C#), but only for those couple bars, paradise bars that can’t last, then F-sharp becomes F-natural, world of difference, and the beneficent embrace becomes tinged with sadness, like a wave of sadness, and then, the sadness having broken the embrace, we come slowly down the scale, A, G#, F#, E, D, C#, down the sixth (quintessential waltz-interval, summing everything up while bidding it farewell), each note to be played as the one you never want to leave behind. You can’t do better to express in musical notes how a person reluctantly leaves a hug, having not quite accepted departure and distance.

There are some days (bad days) when all I see in this passage is a peaceful wistful wind-down. On good days, every note is charged with tremendous unspoken unspeakable meaning. I know I said I wouldn’t ever explain anything again, but here I am, what the hell, I can’t help talking about this stuff, like I can’t help eating after the concert. It’s like a belch after a good meal, gases released by aesthetic digestion, it relieves some of the pressure of the greatness of the thing. Sometimes music also explains itself, comments on itself, turns in on itself, as if itself were not quite enough. Why does this waltz not just vanish into simple thin air like so many, into charm? Brahms is not just ending, he’s revealing meanings: the waltz is not just a dance but also an icon, an instrument of memory and desire. Dances end, but their memories, the rustle of a dress or the glance … Each detail of this coda tells. In his embrace of all the registers, you get the sense of trying to gather something together (memories? thoughts? affection?), desiring to hold it all impossibly, in the slowing tempo you get this reluctance to let go, in the harmony, the beautiful seventh chords, you get the sensuality, seductiveness of the waltz, and with the mid-course shift from major to minor, the happiness immediately shot through with sadness, the double edge. Brahms says it all about the waltz, right there, before it’s too late, because it’s too late.

I would give you an audio example from our recent performance but an audience member with an excellent ear for the most profoundly fragile musical moments decided to cough through most of this section.

Damn. Reading all this back, I really seem like even more of a jerk than usual, it would seem I’m picking on the audience, lamenting its very existence, which is not at all the idea, the opposite of the idea (please note, blog commenters, everyone: this is NOT THE POINT.) No. I apologize for this terrible impression. I had a rough post-concert party. Chit-chat can be deadlier than you think after a smoothie and Ligeti. In fact, I forgot to mention one thing. Just as I pushed the door open to the lobby at intermission, standing there in the crush against the door with her cane waiting but not knowing whether I would come out or not (I almost didn’t), there was a woman there who has been coming to these concerts for a decade. The woman is in her eighties, maybe nineties, she went to Oberlin. (Go Oberlin!) She can barely get around, she doesn’t live in Seattle, she lives on one of those islands in the Sound, she has to catch a ferry, it’s like a couple hours trip for her to get to the concert, but she always comes to hear me for one concert, and because it’s so difficult, it’s always maybe the very last time. It’s impossible to know from our brief meetings, it’s likely self-delusion, but I’d like to think for her it’s all about the music, her smile is fantastic through the wrinkles, rippling through the wrinkles in a way that seems to be very musical. My old teacher, who had the most incredible, marvelous, subtle wrinkly smiles at certain moments in Mozart, said you should think while performing as if you were playing for the composer. But the composer is dead, most of the time. Sometimes I think it would be best to think of playing for this woman, or another friend, who knows and forgives everything.

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Congratulate Yourself, Beethoven

Can you believe it, I was just innocently surfing the net when I came across this:


It’s not often that Ives and Rossini share a clause. Now, I could splooge a bunch of ironic verbiage at you to explain how I felt, but I think this artist’s conception will suffice:


The night before I stumbled on this post, weird coincidence! I’d been stumbling down 9th avenue with friend M, in the warm aftermath of a perfect Manhattan. I remember the moment, my brain must have flagged it for some reason, the setting was not ideal, busy sidewalk, a clump of fratboys in front of a dive bar, one of them belched hideously, a hoarse sorority girl cackle escaped from the bar’s french doors, sailed into traffic. I fought screech and belch to let free something hours of humorless practicing had cooped up in me: how incredibly central humor is to Beethoven …

Around 1802 or so (I’m no biographer, look it up) Beethoven said to Czerny: “I am now going to take a new path.” I think this is a relatively important moment in Western Classical Music History, to be filed along with Bach saying to his wife one day “I’m just going to keep writing the same ridiculously incredible music I’ve been writing my whole life” and Stravinsky’s “I am now going to begin composing Neoclassical Music, which very few people will prefer to my early Russian Music, damn it, where’s my vodka.”

Beethoven says “I’m taking a new path.” The very next group of Sonatas he writes is Op. 31. Mr. Tom Service, just take a good listen to the first page of Op. 31 #1:

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(click for score)

… the work of a jokester, first and foremost. Also, Beethoven like a child just cannot get enough of his joke, he’s obsessed with it, in fact the gag utterly depends on its insistence, i.e. it’s not just that the right and left hands can’t quite play together, but that they keep not being able to play together until, at last, after perverse amounts of anticipation, they decide to rush up and down the keyboard in an addled, maniacal unison. (How’s that for together?!?) Left and right hands are cast as characters in a slapstick routine. By the second theme, Beethoven’s left funny in the dust, he’s speeding on past silly …


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… obviously, you don’t need words or images to be funny. Case closed? My point is not that Mr. Service is wrong, but that he’s SO wonderfully irritatingly wrong that there’s a shiver of pleasure and recognition when you turn his whole proposition inside out. As my key witness (there are millions of others!) I’d like to interrogate the opening movement of Op. 31 #3.

This sonata (the third “new way” sonata) begins with this unusual idea:

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Much has been made of this beginning, for good reason. The harmony for instance! Beethoven starts off on a chord which would normally be considered too unsettled (strange to launch your vehicle from quicksand.) It is an audacious 7th-chord, but not an dramatic diminished-7th-chord, no, rather a lovely 7th-chord with a softer edge (“kinder, gentler”). The melody is lovely too: it begins with an impulse and releases to the weak beat (what we sexist-ly call a “feminine ending”), falling down a fifth in the process. These little attributes add up, they’ve been puzzled over pleasurably by generations of pianists, and without fail in masterclasses on this piece the teacher ends up begging the student to play more questioningly, more flirtatiously, more teasingly–it’s never enough, no matter how hard you try. By all accounts Beethoven was not a great real-life flirter but somehow such is life and art he wrote one of the great vexatious/flirtatious beginnings of all time.

What happens next?

Beethoven makes this chord denser, lower, deeper. He changes the soft-edged 7th into a menacing diminished-7th chord. Suddenly the music is transformed, nearly growling, we are in a radically different mood from the one the opening bars promised—ominous, dense, portentous. Beethoven instructs us to slow down, confirming that things are getting “more serious” (weightier) …


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Maybe you also find it peculiar that Beethoven would start all flirty and then get immediately all ponderous and significant, before we even have a chance to settle in. [Possible theory for Beethoven’s lack of romantic success? ed.]

The delicious thing is it’s all a set-up. He’s promising, suggesting, preparing, and then finishes the phrase with …


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… a throwaway cadence. Gravitas gone, like a popped balloon. Note that all the music up to this point has been unique, distinctive, stuff only Beethoven could write, but this cadence which wraps up the phrase is nothing, generic, anonymous, it’s stuff anybody could write. I get this image of someone crumpling up all the ideas of the phrase, throwing them over his shoulder with a smile, saying “that’s that.” The timing of musical events bears a suspicious resemblance to what we might call “comic timing,” the impulse of a great joke-teller to wind up expectation, to mislead, and then all at once, in a flash, release the punchline.

What you have is a phrase made of three different things
But it’s clear that C calls back to A, in that they both belong in the world of opera buffa—let’s say, the light and laughing. Whereas B’s clearly the stick in the mud. And so you see, structurally, the thing, the generative phrase of the work, depends upon and is built upon this wavering of serious and unserious, the heavy and the light: the serious encased, framed (mocked?) within the comic. This opposition is essential to its meaning, is actually its whole reason-for-being.

Enough of the first phrase, let’s move on. Beethoven repeats, reworks, adds cheeky grace notes etc. etc.

Presently it’s time for all this fun to end, to get down to business, to transition to the dominant key—that’s what all sonatas do don’t they? Beethoven seems to have this dutifulness in mind, a sense of the going-through-the-motions-always-modulating-to-the-dominant thing, because he rolls up his sleeves and commences his transition in a patently prosaic way:


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If you take just this passage out of context, it surely doesn’t scream Beethoven. It’s more the work of some boring 1760-something composer, the kind of composer whose symphony #938 you tend to hear in the morning on public radio: niche-filling tonal twaddle. I love it when Beethoven “pretends” to be mediocre. There is actually a lot of roleplaying in Beethoven, in his variations, especially: he pretends to be an oaf or a peasant or professorial Bach or bewigged Mozart, graceful or gruff, any number of adopted voices which wittily weave in and out.

This Boring Traditional Transition is going according to plan, it’s headed for the usual harmonic suspects (dominant of the dominant) and could easily be wrapped up … when we hit a wrong turn:


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… haha, brilliant Beethoven stops mediocre Beethoven in his tracks. No time to laugh though, it’s too breathtakingly beautiful, this vision of the opening motive in the minor key, which we could never have suspected. The next measures (plaintive, melancholy, searching) in which Beethoven develops the B idea from the opening are crucial; the narrative which had been so jokey suddenly broadens, deepens. We’re astoundingly far from the dopey transition we began: Beethoven loves to juxtapose incompatibles, the prosaic and profound.


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The beauty of these bars functions: it creates a temporary spell, a bubble of seriousness. Now, for a joke to work, some part of it has to be “taken seriously.” That’s why many jokes are in 3s, with the premise set by two normal instances, which go as you expect (predictable, interchangeable, logical) and the third of course being the twist. Listening seriously and literally is an important phase in the process of being shocked, amused, disrupted. These bars, while seducing us, are manipulating us into being serious listeners. With this plaintive augmented 6th chord…


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… Beethoven clearly implies an upcoming “feminine” cadence, a gentle entry to the new key and theme very much in the melancholic preceding mood. However:


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Notice Beethoven keeps up the dastardly disingenuous illusion till the last possible moment—even the downbeat of the offending bar is still piano—till wham! he thwacks out all those Fs, forte, hacking his way down to the guttural lowest register of the piano. The Beethovenian fox is in the Classical henhouse.

A transition is supposed to lead to, to smooth over changing harmonies, to prepare the way … But here all these notions–the normal definitions of transition–are mocked, trampled on. At the very moment I type this, sitting outside a cafe in Teton Village, looking up at the blissful morning mountains, a large dog has escaped from its owner (whose voice is heard tiredly scolding in the distance), and the dog has decided to squat poetically on top of the most innocent clump of daisies in the nearby perfectly manicured flowerbed. He is letting loose a wonderful dump on those daisies let me tell you, ignoring all the grass, the acres of other possibilities, the whole Grand Teton park for God’s sake, just to dump on those particular daisies. And I’m not saying that’s exactly what Beethoven is doing here, but it does seem a bit of a fateful coincidence.

The wry look of the elderly man at the next table is priceless, inscrutable.

Even if you heard every moment of this sonata more seriously than I have described up to this point, even if you’re perched in reverential bliss at the foot of Great Beethoven, at this moment you surely MUST realize that he’s playing you. He’s a trickster, an unreliable narrator, willing to whip out the rug out from under you, scheming behind your back how to mislead you next. This fascinating willingness even to disrespect his own beautiful inspirations, to destroy moods he has carefully created: a neglected ingredient of Beethoven’s Greatness.

After these loud F’s, we get barely a moment, a blip, a mere eighth note rest, and into the breach quietly sails the jovial second theme.


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Just to make sure we’re all on the same bewildered page, let’s have a quick recap of this “transition”:

quiet (sad) … thwack! thwack! thwack! … quiet (happy)

I’d propose, as analogy for this passage, another bit of slapstick: a man is walking along, he suddenly trips on a banana peel, falls, terrific crash as lamps and vases etc. are destroyed, there is a blip/moment of him behind the sofa or screen or whatever, but the next moment he is up again–pretending as if nothing has happened. The comedy is not so much the fall or the invisible clatter, but his rapid attempt at dignity immediately afterwards. Beethoven’s second theme appears instantly, with its Alberti bass, “as if” there had been a perfectly civilized transition, which there has not: this transition is comedy gold, pure irreverence. (Better than Tom Lehrer let me tell you.)

OK, one last thing I want to point out. This second theme is theming along, one phrase two phrase, in high spirits. It rounds off harmonically and then a bit of piano passagework begins:


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Obviously, any piano sonata worth its salt must have some virtuoso passagework. Take a close look at that first bar … There are a delicious, irrational 17 notes in the second two beats of the bar … (“normally” there would be eight) … This often causes pianist mishaps, and provokes amusing student consternation. (How the hell do you fit them all in?) Theoretically, one job of the composer is to at least make sure the number of notes in the measure add up, particularly in passagework. Otherwise, anarchy: scales landing on the wrong harmony, flying every which way. But there is a sense here that Beethoven is making fun of this convention, flaunting it shamelessly … or could he be depicting the moment when the pianist “takes a wrong turn” in a passage and has to add an amazing number of notes to catch up? (Not that I’ve ever done that.)

This passage is the Energizer bunny, it goes on, and on, and on:


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… it keeps curving up and down, swerving, naturally you begin to wonder: where could all this passage be leading, all this unprecedented scale-work be taking us? It must be something big. But when we get to the end of it, we have …


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… the same old theme. The whole damned passage was unnecessary, a pointless curlicue, like an uneaten Cheez Puff. Don’t you feel Beethoven laughing at you, or laughing at his own joke, hoping you’ll laugh with him? (Visions of Joyce in his room alone, laughing hysterically while writing Finnegans Wake). Beethoven has visited upon us a pointless diversion, that is, pointless unless you find it amusing.

Have I made my point? Jokes are not accidental, occasional effects in this Sonata; this is not a serious piece with jokes in it, like those annoying “gag lines” that people scatter into their boring speeches. Humor is structural, form-defining, essential; the whole edifice is laughing, laughing at its core. The crucial junctures are often irreverent, the construction of the main idea is a masterpiece of comic timing, etc. etc. This is of course by no means to trivialize the piece, but to come to grips with it, with its gleeful transgressions, its badboy impulses, its joy set loose. And this is what I was trying to express after my Manhattan: the centrality of humor to this language of High Classical, to Mozart Haydn Beethoven, humor as an essential catalyst, a carrier of profundity.

The other day I was at a friend’s house recital and the first piece was the slow movement of the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata. There was a guy sitting in the front row with a particular sort of rapturous look on his face. The rapture was deserved, the performance was beautiful, but his slightly glazed, cultish look … it made me a bit queasy.

It got me thinking. Rachmaninoff will not generally whip the rug out from under you, he’s not an unreliable narrator. An emotion for him is something to “groove on,” something to obsess over, to let flourish. When he has a contrasting emotion, it is usually safely confined to a contrasting section: the form, the structure insulates us against emotional disruption (please note: the absolute opposite of above Beethoven example). He is trying to hold you, womb-like, in the spell of an emotion, to keep you embalmed. From the beginning of each section you can feel the gravitational pull of the climax, the place where that emotion will peak. He will build you up bit by bit, then wind down post-coitally, gradually, scattering embers of afterglow.

The first movement of Beethoven Op. 31#3 has no climax, doesn’t want one or need one. Many (if not most) High Classical works don’t have climaxes in that sense. In place of the single grooved-on emotion heading for its peak, they subsist on play, a wavering of emotions, of tone, from serious to light: they cherish less the emotion sustained than emotion fleeting. It’s a very intense difference of paradigm. In a way, it is ridiculous to think of Rachmaninoff and Beethoven as being both Classical Composers: they’re embarked on completely different projects.

Speaking generally—too generally—the Romantic Era gradually became more uncomfortable mixing the light and the heavy. Let’s take Liszt. He “laughs” through his Rhapsodies, Fantasies, etc. His serious works are serious! (“Faust” Symphony) But people deride the laughing works as fluff and the serious works as overdone—they feel too vapid or too earnest. By separating comedy from tragedy, the serious from the unserious, Liszt got two unsatisfying alternatives. Wagner purged laughter from his musical world (Ring, Tristan, Parsifal: pieces so laugh-free they are irresistible targets for satire). Chopin separated his lighter thoughts (waltzes, mazurkas) from the more serious (ballades, nocturnes, scherzos), except for a few special cases. Schumann … well he hits the light/serious sweet spot a few times (piano concerto slow movement!).

I would connect this light/heavy separation to something else: as the Romantic era wears on, you get a sense of this urge to prolong, to squeeze, to squeeze out emotion like toothpaste. You get Wagner’s love letter to continuity, his modest assertion that he has achieved the most perfect endless melody, mastered the art of the infinitely gradated transition (violently different from Beethoven transition, above). Don’t you feel a certain desperation in some Mahler, a need to spin out his emotions at extreme length, as if off to infinity (9th symphony)? To make those altered states last, abstract hedge against death? It is one good definition of music’s purpose: this idealized notion of emotion, music as preserver or sustainer of emotion, as timeless place where a feeling lasts seemingly forever. Music is so excellent at creating states and spells, places where things can sing themselves out to the last drop. The Romantic era is how we WISH emotions were: endlessly prolongable, leading to satisfying climaxes, etc. etc. But the Classical era is (perhaps) how emotions maybe actually are: subject to inconsistency, wavering, shifting, vanishing, elusive. There is a line between this desire for endlessness and this humorlessness.

In the Romantic Era you feel that gradual erection of a wall between the light and the serious. It is important to reflect (did they?): this wall would destroy The Marriage of Figaro, or Don Giovanni. These two great operatic masterpieces are both symbiotic hybrids, comedy-dramas, in which humor is the indispensable meaningful foil. And don’t give me this ridiculous notion, Mr. Service, that it’s because of the words. Jesus! It’s not that Figaro is the most brilliantly funny script of all time, certainly! It’s the way the music manages to capture, bring alive, make suddenly ring true for us, its comic clichés: the way it captures emotion’s simultaneous truth and folly. It’s that the music laughs, more wisely and profoundly than any verbal gag could. Humor is a jolt, a trick of timing, a flash of the unexpected, but it’s also a fluid that carries forgiveness, empathy, generosity …

It’s sad to contemplate Tom Service’s image: Wigmore audiences tittering at Haydn, to congratulate themselves at “getting the joke.” Humor in classical music should not be nerdy, uptight, insidery, or smug. And sometimes it feels confined to those preordained moments, perhaps because of tradition or fear or etiquette or some other crap we can’t go into. Just to depress myself further, I looked on a classical music forum, with the topic: what’s funny in classical music? And you get a ream of special examples (Haydn this, Malcolm Arnold that, moments here and there) and then eventually hilariously it gets lost in a very unfunny discussion of Nazism in Wagner. Sigh. No no NO, I want to say, stop it, humor is no special example, it’s not a side stream, it’s not vacuum cleaners and celebrity guests and props, it’s the beating heart, it’s one of the main currents, one of the most wonderful. These composers, through flashes of genius, tremendous insight in timing, nuance, all the tricks of comedians, acrobats, thinkers, clowns, poets … they taught us how to laugh in tones: the only challenge is not to forget their living lesson.

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