Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Importance of Asking "Why?" Kenneth Drake

It may be unavoidable that the natural curiosity of childhood should become subordinate to training as we grow up taking our lessons and putting in our hours of practice. On the contrary, asking “why?” is learning to think independently, the purpose of all disciplined study: submitting to the guidance of the best teacher of all, the teacher’s teacher, the score. Not every student, young or not so young, will arrive at the same explanation for the composer’s choice of notes or form, but this in itself is the beauty of it all. Traveling intellectually into the distant past, we follow the process of composition and return to play with greater conviction.

The questions that follow probe the inner life of repertoire that many reading these words may be presently studying. In each instance searching for an answer nourishes the gestation of one’s concept of the piece that lives beyond the boundary of the notes.

Why might it be significant that the first movement of the Mozart B-flat Sonata K. 333 begins with an appoggiatura? Should it be played differently than if it were written as the first of four 16ths? Being a ‘leaning-on’ ornament and the first note we play, does the appoggiatura have an effect on the Allegro tempo marking and, if so, our perception of the character of the movement?

Do the many appoggiaturas on the upbeats in the Rondo alla turca, the finale of the sonata dated exactly 100 years after the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, raise the possibility of a more sophisticated piece? On a piano of the period with devices imitating cymbals and drums, is this music historical color, or are these appoggiaturas, if given their due weight, a clue to a tongue-in-cheek parody?

Why did Beethoven subtitle the familiar Sonata Op. 13 Grande Sonate Pathétique? The Cassell’s New French Dictionary gives a number of translations of grande, among these, great, large, lofty, spacious, noble, majestic. What does grande suggest regarding Beethoven’s own concept of the work? More to the point, is grande interrelated with the choice of tempo?

Comparing the Allegro theme in the exposition with its appearance in the recapitulation, why did Beethoven place a sforzando over the C-major chord in the latter and not in the exposition?

Why did Beethoven fashion the theme of the Rondo to begin and end with an authentic cadence? Does this theme that begins with a cadence – an ending – at all determine one’s interpretation of the conclusion of the sonata? Specifically, tempo?

In the E-flat Sonata Op. 27/1 Beethoven indicated Attacca subito l’Allegro, Attacca subito l’Adagio, and Attaca subito l’Allegro vivace after the first three movements respectively. In the C-sharp minor Sonata, the ever popular “Moonlight,” why does attacca subito il seguente appear only at the end of the first movement but not the second?

Why did Beethoven write the rolled A-major chord in the first measure of the D-minor Sonata Op. 31/2 in first inversion, beginning with a low C# instead of an A?

Other than the extramusical image attributed to him (like a voice within a vault), why did Beethoven indicate a long pedal under the recitatives in the first movement of this Sonata?

Why is the passage beginning m. 205 marked piano whereas in the parallel passage in the exposition (following the crescendo in m. 73) there is no dynamic marking except for the parenthetical indication provided by the editor? Czerny in fact corroborates this difference in his On the Correct Performance of all of Beethoven’s Works for Piano.

Why did Czerny, quoting the first measures of the movement, place a double-sharp under the turn in m. 6? (In his edition of the sonata, the usual # is given.) If, as is possible, Czerny coached the sonata with Beethoven, might the accidental have been discussed and a reason given for an f double-sharp?

What does the double dotted rhythm have to do with the character of the second movement?

Why did Beethoven indicate such strange sounding sforzandos in the passage between m. 173 and 198 in the third movement? Could there have been a purpose other than just accent?

Why did Beethoven place a crescendo over a held dotted half note – the duration of a full measure (m. 4) in the opening line of the Sonata Op. 31/3, as well as at the end of the first movement of Op. 81a (m. 252)? (In the latter the crescendo appears only in the autograph, presumably Beethoven’s original intent.) Since a crescendo over a held note is not actually possible on the piano, what does a pianist do with the marking?

Why is it significant for our understanding of the piece that the second theme of the first movement of the “Waldstein” is in the key of the mediant (E major) in the exposition and in the submediant (A major) in the recapitulation, although the usual key would be G major and C major, respectively? Does Beethoven’s replacing the original second movement (that we know as the Andante favori) with the Introduzione possibly reflect any purpose other than advice that the original movement made the sonata too long? Why did Beethoven indicate long pedals over the several phrases of the theme of the Rondo?

Why did Schubert notate the G-flat major Impromptu Op. 90, marked Andante, with a double cut-time signature and what looks like two measures of common time joined as one long measure? Could he not have cut the time values and measure lengths in half and indicated 4/4 and Lento cantabile? Does this notation make any difference in the tempo one chooses and the effect of the piece?

Why is the form of the F-minor Ballade of Chopin important to the pianist for a concept of the meaning of the piece? Why the conspicuous dissolving into A major midway through the piece, in m. 134? Why the three eighth-note chords in m. 202 marked staccato fff and followed by a fermata over a rest? Why the strange progression from dominant ninth in m. 206 to the plain dominant chord sustained in m. 7-10? Why did Chopin indicate accel. sin’ al fine in m. 227 and not at the beginning of the coda?

Questions are the breath of life in playing these monologues in notes. It is the means by which we make the piece our own, the gift of the composer. Or is it the means by which we become possessed by the piece, the gift of Thought beyond the boundary of the notes? One’s answers to the questions about the score will seldom be the same for the piece tomorrow or twenty years hence. That which cannot be reliably replicated is antithetical to making a recording, the preparation to pass a degree recital, or the assurance needed to win a competition, however intended these may be to educate and preserve and to uphold standards of performance. Because of the numbers of fine pianists and boundless opportunity for professional exposure, the new, unpredictable discovery to which a question leads seems necessarily of a lower priority than a perfection of means.

One reads that Beethoven, as a listener, cared not so much about technical accidents as about a thinking interpretation. One can anticipate the cry that we today have much higher standards, making blemishes unacceptable. On another level our standards may be much lower than those Beethoven upheld. In fantasy imagine playing for Mozart or Haydn or Beethoven or Chopin, each of whom would know instinctively, before we would have finished the first line, whether we had ever bothered to ask questions of them as they listen, silent in the score.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Finding The Lost Letter of Mozart Kenneth Drake

Grim seriousness reigns in the following sonata, composed on 14 October 1784 (K. 457) and dedicated as Op. XI to Mozart’s pupil Therese von Trattner, the second wife of the printer and publisher, Johann Thomas von Trattner. The instructions for the performance of this Sonata and the ‘Fantasie’ that precedes it have been lost; they must have constituted one of the most important documents of Mozart’s esthetic practice. (Alfred Einstein, Mozart, His Character, His Work, Oxford University Press, 1945, p. 247)

If the reader is enrolled in a piano literature class and needing a topic for a term paper, imagine what could be learned from reconstructing this lost letter of Mozart. Should the professor teaching the class respond that such a topic would be musicological fiction, one should argue, on the contrary, that there are many questions to research in reconstructing a plausible content of this letter. Reading pertinent information and relating it to every detail in the score, we re-compose the letter and find a more convincing interpretation of the piece.

The primary source having to do with Mozart’s tastes and the interpretation of his works would be his letters. Scanning the published two volumes of letters for comments about players and singers would be time-consuming but immensely profitable. What did he say about tempo, for example, or understanding the music, playing the instrument, or subjective response to the music, i.e., commonly called “feeling?”

There are other intriguing questions, such as “Who was Therese von Trattner?” other than what we know from Alfred Einstein. Does the depth of seriousness of this music or the technical difficulty tell us anything about Therese as a pianist that Mozart should have dedicated the piece to her? She must have been a stoic individual who understood the realities of the world around her. Can we infer from Mozart’s descriptions of other pianists, in particular other women pianists of his day, what musical attributes he admired in Therese’s playing?

The fatalistic nature of the form of the Fantaisie itself can be discerned in the six starkly differing sections assembled symmetrically in an arch shape: slow – fast – slow – fast – slow, the last section a recapitulation of the opening section. The actively dramatic sections burst into the musical monologue in a manner that startles the listener. What might Mozart have said about silence in the length of the fermata over the quarter rest in m. 35? Isn’t it interesting that the rest in m. 124 preceding the Più allegro is not lengthened by a fermata? Would Mozart have pointed to that difference, saying that suspense of waiting in the earlier passage was written into the fragments and rests in m. 118 – 124? Mozart presumably considered Therese sufficiently mature as a musician to grasp the emotional implication of a detail such as the sforzandos on the first of three eighth-notes in the upbeat figures in m. 153 – 156. (One can imagine Beethoven placing the sforzando on the downbeat.) What would Mozart have suggested to communicate the tension that evolves leading to the augmented sixth in m. 21? A metronomic beat, or the sense of quickening tempo with the arrival of the 16ths and the melodic sequence, then the repeated sixteenth-note chords and the chromatic descent in the bass? What might he have said about the strange and disputed f on the beat in m. 19? An accent or a lengthening of the sound?

These suggested avenues of inquiry just mentioned have dealt with the Fantaisie; there would be yet the three movements of the Sonata. One can imagine the time that could be spent preparing such a term paper, listing the many details and then organizing these in categories. To substantiate one’s answers there are scholarly sources for contemporary accounts of interpretation of articulation, touches, ornaments, tempo and its fluctuation, the agogic dimension of dynamics, use of pedal – another means of peering into the mind of Mozart. Such sources could include Sandra Rosenblum’s Performance Practice in Classic Piano Music Clive Brown’s Classical and Romantic Performing Practice, and Roberto Poli’s The Secret Life of Musical Notation, a study of the agogic dimension of dynamic markings.
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There is a lost letter to be discovered in every piece we pianists play that we then read to others as we play. Based on Alfred Einstein’s information, the C-minor Fantaisie and Sonata had that significance for Mozart that he felt compelled to share how we wanted the work to be played. Einstein continues:

Did they [Mozart’s instructions] perhaps contain more personal matters as well, which had to be hidden from posterity? We do not know, and we cannot peer into the biographical mystery of the work. But it is clear that it represents a moment of great agitation, agitation that could not longer be expressed in the fatalistic A minor key of the Paris sonata, but required the pathetic C minor that was to be Beethoven’s favorite key for the expression of similar emotions.

Mystery… perhaps that was the quality Mozart desired most of all that Therese should find in the sounds her fingers drew from the fortepiano when she played the Fantaisie and Sonata.