Monday, December 21, 2015

The Delight in Disorder

- Kenneth Drake

The musician who is curious about this title might google it and discover a poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1675) that begins:
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
The poet sees sweet disorder in a lawn thrown over the shoulders, “an erring lace,” “the tempestuous petticoat,” and a “careless shoestring, in whose tie I see a wild civility:”

Each of these:
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

With these images in mind, read about the first performance of the Mozart D minor Concerto K.466 in Robert Gutman’s Mozart – A Cultural Biography, p. 642. Mozart’s father had arrived from Salzburg that day, February 11, 1785, to see bustling activity copying the orchestra parts of the concerto that his son was to play that night. When did they rehearse? Gutman writes, “During the performance, Leopold marveled at the orchestra’s ability to cope with the ‘superb’ concerto it had to play well nigh at sight.” It is possible that they never rehearsed the finale. On another occasion a bit less astounding (p. 534-535 in Gutman), Mozart plays by memory the B-flat Sonata for violin and piano K. 379, “completed the previous night,” the violinist playing from the score.

A letter of Bartok written to his family described a concert given with a violinist in a remote part of Hungary. The stage was wobbly and lit by a single bulb swaying from the ceiling. At one point Bartok had to remind the violinist while playing, “TAKE OFF THE MUTE.” The score from which Bartok was playing was his loose-leaf manuscript – it had to happen – turning one of the pages, all the pages fell on the stage, leaving no choice but to pick them up and go on. Bartok wrote that the concert was a success. Alex Ringer, telling the story before a history class, commented that this concert might not have been a success in a large metropolitan concert hall.

It was freshly composed music that nonetheless connected with the unpracticed audience. For these listeners it may have been the first time to hear a live concert and, for that matter, music of a newness that would have engaged the practiced listening of a musician concertgoer. In our time newness on concert programs is less often encountered except on a series devoted to new music. By and large we play music written over the past 350 years; careers are concentrated on particular periods or playing historic keyboard instruments. The excitement of the moment of creation has been trampled by a tradition of expectation of a performance free of blemish. Because we have heard the music innumerable times, we go to a concert to hear not the birthing of ideas – as though the notes were still drying on the page – but instead a demonstration of tightrope assuredness, the safety of sameness, and the authority of security expected of a touring performer.

If we could, through a time warp, attend the concert of February 11, 1785, would we be bewitched by the spontaneity of Mozart’s musical being, unpremeditated expressive impulses that must have held the newness together as a coherent whole? Do you suppose, for example, that Mozart treated the entrance of the solo exactly in step with a metronomic beat of an automaton? The first notes of the solo are a personal reaction to the unrest of the syncopation in the opening measures of the movement and the passion these introduce. These first notes the pianist plays are an octave reach upward that is repeated a fourth higher and, like a cry into the unmeasured and unknown, a reach upward of a tenth to the highest note on Mozart’s piano. If Haydn and Beethoven thought instrumentally on the piano, it is defensible to observe that Mozart thought vocally – a singer would have exploited these expanding intervals, would have subtly breathed between the phrases, and certainly have stretched the reach to the high f’s as the climax of the solo.

Pianists may boast a pedigree of a renowned teacher or a prestigious conservatory, but the artist is the one who is perceptive enough to listen to Mozart coaching in the music that is not part of the score, to quote Benjamin Britten – Mozart as if in life two hundred and thirty years ago when a “sweet disorder in the dress” still kindled a joy in imprecise sounds that cannot be notated.