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Does it matter if we care if you listen?  



Milton Babbitt's controversial article struck another nerve in the war between high and low art
 

Koechel, God Bless You!


What's the deal with those funny numbers?

 Don't your fingers get tired?




A question and answer page for the curious...

 
this is supposed to be a picture of some dude playing the piano in front of a stained glass window!
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These are some of my former piano students from Baltimore. Can't see them? sorry about that.
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 Erasmus's blog:
In Praise of Chicken
 
 






 Mike's Ballpark
 hotdog review
 
 
 THE PIANONOISE GUIDE TO POLITICAL RHETORIC


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This week's featured recording:
(4.26.16)



The Chorale in concert at the Carle Cancer Center in 2012. That's Julie Beyler on the podium and myself at the piano. It gives me fond memories now every time I go there for treatment.
Last week, I put a formal end to my relationship with The Chorale. It was not the end I had wanted: after being accompanist for that wonderful singing group for (we think)  some eight years, my recent diagnosis with cancer and subsequent chemotherapy treatments made it clear that I could not possibly serve reliably as their accompanist for the remaining two months before our impending move to Pittsburgh, despite their generous offer to me to participate in any rehearsals and the spring concert as I was able. Although considered a highly curable cancer and with a relatively short term of treatment (3 months?) that treatment regimen  is nonetheless too aggressive to permit me the kind of stamina I would need to continue to perform. So here in this space I want to express my appreciation to all, and to offer as a temporary parting gift a recording I made when our friend Jean Redpath passed away from cancer a few years ago. I remember the New Year's Eve at The Virginia Theater when she taught this favorite of ours to the audience for her final appearance. It is the chorus that we all sang, many of the verses between were Jean's own, often improvised to suit the occasion:

listen
So hereís to you and our time together
Iíll share with you a parting glass
And Iíll bid adieu with some smiles and laughter
Our time apart will be short and pass



...it may indeed. There is already talk about my possible return for a concert next year--but we'll cross that bridge when the crises is passed. In the meantime, I will not be traveling to Spain with you all, but wish you an outstanding experience and tour. In about a month I'll share with you on this site music I would have played had I come with you.
  Friends: the upcoming events calendar which would normally appear here has been upended by my diagnosis of cancer. I am unlikely to be participating in any concerts for several months, and this website, which is regularly updated on Tuesdays, may suffer the occasional lapse. I would still like to offer you music and commentary however and whenever I can, just be aware that I cannot guarantee anything. Thank you all for your concern.
New on the Blog   (updated Apr. 19)  
from the concert hall... Monday 4/4/16
going Medieval
They walked around a lot during the olde days
 
from the teaching studio... Wednesday 4/6/16
No place for the timid
accompanists have to be able to both lead and follow
from the organ bench... Friday 4/8/16
The temerity of a tumor
in case our regularly scheduled blogs are interrupted, you'll know why
April 26

What's with all the Italian?
first posted March 15, 2009

Classical music seems like enough of a foreign language to most people without having to throw an actual foreign language into the mix. Unless you speak Italian, the names of pieces: Sonata, Symphony, Concerto-- instructions about how fast to play them: allegro moderato, vivace, largo, and like-- and a whole host of markings within the pieces: ritardando, espressivo, allargando, staccato, arco, fortissimo, and on and on, might have you saying with Mozart in the movie Amadeus "basta! basta!" (enough! enough!)

So what is up with all of that Italian? Did the guardians of the sacred tradition of 'good music' decide to put everything in Italian so the rest of you guys wouldn't figure it out? Seems like it, but no. However, the real reason for all the Italian is equally stupid. Read on:

There are several things about humanity that should not be underestimated. One of these is the power of rivalry. On a small scale it is known as 'sibling rivalry'; widening the lens a little it is known as war. Countries and cultures have been colliding practically since the days that Pangaea got a divorce.  But there is an interesting little variant of this; if you can't wipe them out, you can show you are just as good as they are.

We've always had people who have told us who in the world is the best at something; these are the people in the know, and what they know is that they don't want to take a backseat to anybody. You've probably heard France is the best place to get wine, the Swiss excel at watch making, if you want engineering, for God's sake, go with the Germans.  Aspen is a pretty good place to go skiing, unless you live near the Alps. The list could go on and on. Egypt is the place for pyramids, if you are in the market for one. They are probably going cheap, these days.

Now if you can't beat them, you don't have to join them, but that would require inventing your own thing to be good at, and that is a later stage in the development of both people and civilizations. In Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries it was still the epitome of taste to imitate the epitome of taste; the rich and powerful are never makers of things, but they are astonishing collectors. In luxury, the fellow who set the tone was the biggest king on the block, which at one time was Louis XIV. The Germanys at that point were divided up into about 300 little kingdoms, and they all tried their best to be as luxurious and ceremonially wasteful as the court of France, with, I'm imagining, some pathetic results.

Even Louis knew where to get his music, and it wasn't France. Somehow word had gotten around that the Italians were doing some hot stuff musically. Probably their civilization allowed for a greater development of the arts--remember that little thing called the Renaissance? An Italian thing (1400-1600). While the Italians were still basking in the afterglow, the rest of Europe was just getting the memo after two centuries. England had been too busy fighting France for a hundred years and trying hard to stay poor and disease-ridden, the German states were riddled by wars and reformations--but in the southern climes the arts had been given a better chance. Now if you want to impress people, you need to find out were the best stuff is, and steal it for yourself. Once Louis figured that out, everybody in Europe had their own music masters (the kings and princes, I mean) and they were all Italian. Meanwhile, Italians were streaming out of Italy trying to find work in the newly created job market were there was a bit more room to stretch your arms without poking another Italian court composer.

Not all the Italians got all the hot jobs; some non-Italians changed their names to sound like they were Italians. How that fooled anybody I have no idea (I guess Puck was right: 'Lord, what fools these mortals be!'). At any rate, the Italians were dominating music at a critical time, because it coincided with the birth of several forms of music, and the idea that you could write more on your page than mere notes; a few remarks in a language that people could understand more easily might help with important things like how fast you wanted the music to go, or how loud. These were also items that hadn't been subject to flux a few short centuries previous, at least in the minds of those who believed they knew the eternal principles they called music to be, and of course, what it wasn't.

If you were Italian, you naturally wanted to write these instructions in your own language. If you happened to be an English composer (hiding under an assumed name) and you wanted the music to slow down for a minute, you could, after all, write 'slow down' but that would mean you were an imbecile who didn't realize that Italian really was the thing this century. If you wanted to argue that it was better to be able to understand something than be fashionable, you obviously didn't know much about humans.

Fortunately for those too lazy to learn a few words in another language, a counter-trend soon materialized, which was the idea that one's own country was just fine, thank you. Eventually it lead to more wars, but for a while it merely excited people with the notion that they could in fact use their own language to communicate musical instructions in. Beethoven, in the early 19th century, was one of the first to make the change. One of his late piano sonatas has the instruction 'Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung ' (singing, with inner expression) which is a mouthful in any language (and pretty lonely; virtually all the other instructions in the piece are still in Italian). The fact that Mozart had already written an opera that was not sung in Italian was a hopeful sign in that direction.

When it came to marks like ritardando (slow down) or crescendo (get louder) Beethoven kept the Italian. Old conventions die hard, particularly if they are easy to use. When it came to expressing thoughts which did not have ready Italian words hallowed by tradition it was easier to dispense with the old custom. Some of my scores are a similar motley of languages, two centuries later. One of my piano pieces has a passage marked to be played 'like a pair of angry bassoons' and I have no idea what the Italian equivalent of that phrase is, nor would I wish to translate it. It is no longer necessary to keep up appearances, but it is still difficult to make a complete break.

I tell my students that they are going to have to learn the standard Italian markings, but if they are composers it is not necessary to always use them. I don't think it is a bad idea to have to adapt, even if it seems like too much trouble to learn all of those 'funny words.' Being an English speaker does not make you the center of the universe. But then, Italian isn't the only thing going either. Many of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin's markings are in French--and some very interesting ones at that. Into the 20th century the elite in Russia thought the French were pretty keen.

Cultures have a long history of imitation, appropriation, influence. Until the 20th century America tried to pretend it was Europe, for musical purposes. Today most of our classical canon consists of German composers--Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms--all Germans (Mozart was technically Austrian). This has long frustrated the heck out of our own native composers, and our country isn't alone in this German domination. For a long time it was fashionable for our composers to go to Europe to learn their trade and then come home and show us what they'd learned. It could, of course, imply a respect and and interest in another culture which, added to our own arresting musicality (it took a European composer to complain to us that we were neglecting it!) would make for a very intoxicating musical brew. But I overestimate ourselves. We are too busy keeping up with the Joneses, or the Jonesos.

But the next time you are listening to your German music with its Italian name, sipping French wine and propping your feet on an Ottoman, just think of all the cultures that have contributed to your entertainment. Even the Sun King didn't have it this good.

 


michael@pianonoise.com