Jun 112013

Four years ago I listened to the Van Cliburn competition online, and wrote a post about Haochen Zhang, the young Chinese pianist who eventually shared the gold medal. In this year’s Van Cliburn my favorite pianist was the 20 year-old Russian Nikolay Khozyainov. He is an exceptional musician. As with Zhang,  there is a kind of transparency to his playing. Here is his first recital — with an amazing Gaspard — from the preliminary round:

Hayden Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI:33
Chopin, Étude in C Major, op. 10, no. 1
Liszt, Transcendental Étude No. 5: Feux follets
Scriabin, Étude in C-sharp Minor, op. 42, no. 5
Ravel, Gaspard de la nuit


Khozyainov’s semi­final perfor­mances received strong reviews from Gregory Issacs, the TheaterJones critic. Here he is with the Brentano Quartet in the Schumann Piano Quintet:

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Dec 122012

Introduced by Glenn Gould himself, this was part of a 1963 CBC television production. Here is the approximate text:

So you want to write a fugue.
You got the urge to write a fugue.
You got the nerve to write a fugue.
So go ahead, so go ahead and write a fugue.
Go ahead and write a fugue that we can sing.

Pay no heed, Pay no mind.
Pay no heed to what we tell you,
Pay no mind to what we tell you.
Cast away all that you were told
And the theory that you read.
As we said come and write one,
Oh do come and write one,
Write a fugue that we can sing.

Now the only way to write one
Is to plunge right in and write one.
Just forget the rules and write one,
Just ignore the rules and try.
And the fun of it will get you.
And the joy of it will fetch you.
Its a pleasure that is bound to satisfy.
You'll decide that John Sebastian must have been a very personable guy.

Never be clever
for the sake of being clever,
for the sake of showing off.

For a canon in inversion is a dangerous diversion,
And a bit of augmentation is a serious temptation,
While a stretto diminution is an obvious solution.

So you want to write a fugue?
Write us a fugue that we can sing.

And when you finish writing it
I think you will find a great joy in it.

(Hope so.)
Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained, they say.
But still it is rather hard to start.

Well? Let us try. Right now? Yes.
Now we are going to write a fugue.
We are going to write a good one.
We are going to write a fugue right now.

There is a well-performed animated rendition, with Elizabeth Benson-Guy,  Anita Darian, Charles Bressler, Donald Gramm, and the Julliard Quartet; and here is a delightful Japanese version. Nathan suggests that it might add to your enjoyment to check out the prelude to Die Meistersinger.


Jun 062011

Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata was composed in 1803, during the period he was working on the Eroica Sym­phony, and barely six months after his Heiligenstadt Testament. The Kreutzer revitalized the violin sonata: sub­­titled molto concertante, it demanded a new kind of virtu­osity from the violin and piano, and anticipated the more ex­pan­sive emotional land­scape of Beethoven’s mid­dle period. Its first per­for­mance was at the Vienna Augarten with Beethoven him­self at the piano along with a young black violinist, George Bridgetower, for whom the sonata had been written. The story of Bridge­tower, and his collaboration with Beethoven, is told by Rita Dove in Sonata Mullatica.

The modern perception of Beethoven’s sonata has been greatly influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s powerful The Kreutzer Sonata.  Published in 1889, Tolstoy’s novella is about love, sex, marital discord and jealousy. In the critical scene, Pozdnyshev’s jeal­ousy is fueled by an amateur performance of the Beethoven sonata in which his wife ac­com­panies the violinist Trukhachevsky whom Pozdnyshev despises. He says:

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Feb 082011

I remember the sense of shock that I felt upon hearing of Milton Babbitt’s death last Saturday. He was a very old man, and had been ill for a long time; so why should I have been shocked? Perhaps it is because of my memory of the last time that I saw him, about two years ago. He was frail and in obvious discomfort, but the as­tonishing vitality of his wit, imagination and intellect was undiminished. It is strange now to imagine that it is gone.

I studied with Milton for two years, which were also his last as a teacher. Yet at the end of this time, I was the same overawed young man I had been when I first walked into his office. I admired and liked him, and I think he liked me; but rarely did I ever feel that I had reached beneath that formidable layer of brilliance and erudition that he wore about himself. There is a certain kind of awe that precludes real intimacy.

I write this, therefore, with the acute awareness that there are many who are more qualified than I to commemorate Milton — witness, for example, David Rakowski’s touching appreciation of him here. For the present, I wish simply to offer a few of my recollections from the time that I spent studying with him, and to consider what these reflections might mean for our understanding of him as a composer and public figure. His reputation, after all, has been a contentious one, and I see no way to easily divorce my private memories of the man from a consideration of the complicated role that he has played in our intellectual history. In fact, it is in honoring Milton as an individual that we can best correct the distorted picture that has often been drawn of him.

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Nov 262010

David Goldman, also known by the pseudonym Spengler, recently wrote an intriguing essay called “Why We Can’t Hear Wagner’s Music“. I found it to be an insightful and stimulating read — so stimulating, in fact, that I expended the bulk of my morning penning a response to this article, outlining the points on which I disagree with him. Following is the text of that response:

As a composer who has maintained an ambivalent passion for Wagner’s music for much of my adult life, I felt a strange shock of recognition when reading your article, perhaps because parts of it so closely mirror my own thoughts about Wagner. I feel that the essence of what makes his work so troubling is precisely, as you suggested in one of your follow-up notes, the disparity that it implies between the beautiful and the good. However, there are a few points on which I feel you do a disservice both to Wagner and to your own argument.

The first point is in regard to the notion that lovers of Wagner’s music are in it purely for those thrilling moments that make the “interminable recitatives” worth­while. Con­sider, for instance, Wotan’s monologue in Act II of Die Walküre, which is one of the recitatives that you mention. James Levine supposedly calls this section of the opera “the part that separates the men from the boys.” What he means, I believe, is that this monologue — perhaps boring to a casual or inattentive listener — is precisely the sort of passage to which lovers of Wagner are most attracted. Instead of being something that they sit through in order to get to the good parts, it is experienced as a thrilling demonstration both of the dramatic powers of the singer, and of Wagner’s ability to achieve the greatest of musical effects with an economy of means. Lovers of Wagner experience his best operas not as a selections of good bits interlarded with “terrible quarters of an hour”, but as coherent dramatic unities, some of which — like Die Walküre — are capti­vating from beginning to end.

The way in which audiences experience Wagner’s music is related closely to a second issue, which is his treatment of time. I agree entirely with you that Wagner’s control of time is a large part of what makes his work revolutionary, but I think you are mistaken in suggesting that his control of time consists only in an ability to stop it. There are whole passages in Wagner’s work — such as Tristan’s delirium in Act III of Tristan und Isolde, or almost the entire second act of Götterdammerüng — in which time rushes forward at breakneck speed, hurtling toward catastrophe with a terri­fying momentum. These segments are as far as imaginable from any attempt to hold onto the moment. Yet they are among the places in Wagner that many love the most; and they are also among the parts of his work that the ambivalent Wagnerite finds most morally troubling.

What is novel in Wagner’s treatment of time may be summed up in Thomas Mann’s famous evocation of his similarities with Tolstoy and Ibsen. What was common to all three figures, Mann said, was the “union of myth and psychology.” Wagner’s operas, for all their mythic trappings, are thus a part of the history of nineteenth-century psychological realism. This underlies Nietzsche’s sniffing comparison of Wagner’s heroines to Emma Bovary; but more to the point, it also explains the nature of Wagner’s treatment of time.

Earlier operas, at least until Gluck, relied on a conception of time that was essentially hieratic, divided into carefully demarcated chunks of recitative—in which musical development stopped and narrative time advanced—and aria, in which action froze and a single emotion or affect was expanded upon. The Wagnerian “endless melody” is something quite different: not an “interminable recitative,” as you suggest, but rather a means by which aria-like sections and recitative-like sections are seam­lessly blended into each other, with such fluency that the audience is seldom aware of the transition. It is not surprising, then, that Wagner often spoke of his technique as being the “art of transition.” Our experience of time when listening to Wagner is thus essentially psychological. Yes, we may freeze in a moment of bliss with the awak­ening Brünnhilde; but we may also rush forward toward death with the fevered Tristan, or toward apocalypse with the villainous Hagen in Götterdammerüng. The point is that, in either case, our experience of time is entirely bounded by that of the characters in the opera itself. An operatic world of hieratic ritual is thus replaced by one of painstaking pyschological realism, much as the “bourgeois” psychology of Ibsen replaced the carefully constructed symmetries of the “well-made play.”

A final point is that the musical structure implied by Wagner’s “endless melody” was not unprecedented—rather, as Wagner himself said, it developed out of the finales to Mozart’s Da Ponte operas, particularly that of Don Giovanni. This suggests that Wagner is not as remote from the classical style as you might believe, and that his music may indeed be a logical, though frightening, continuation of it. Your argument that his music is alien to, or at least parasitic upon, the classical tradition, derives in part from what I feel to be a misunderstanding of the intellectual underpinnings of that tradition. As I have argued elsewhere, the most properly “Christian” music would be that of Josquin and his contemporaries; by contrast, the music of the baroque and classical periods, for the most part, exists in a state of struggle against radical doubt. In Beethoven, this struggle has become formalized as a dialectical conflict between antagonistic musical elements—usually remote keys, as in the Neapolitan relation­ships of the Appassionata Sonata, or differing enharmonic interpretations of a single pitch, as in the C-natural/B-sharp duality of the Seventh Symphony.

In middle Beethoven, the conflict between these elements is what generates the musical structure, and what leads to the triumphant affirmation with which many of the works of the heroic period close. The vision of the world presented in Beethoven is thus much closer to that of Hegel than it is to that of Christian eschatology: for in Beethoven, as in Hegel, it is the process of dialectical conflict that leads us toward perfection. But as Leszek Kolakowski has remarked, Hegel’s philosophy, originally intended as theodicy, ends up as theogony; similarly, the exaltation of heroic struggle in middle Beethoven differs only in degree — not in kind — from the Wagnerian cult of the Artist as Prophet.

I would like, finally, to reiterate that I am in agreement with you about the central paradox that Wagner presents us: that the beautiful is not necessarily the good. For his music does indeed trouble me deeply, at the same time that I love it very much. In much of what he wrote there is a profound “sympathy for the abyss,” mirroring the nihilism of the Schopenhauerian metaphysics that so attracted Wagner. As Nietsche wrote, “only the philosopher of decadence could give to the artist of decadence — himself.” But if we trivialize Wagner’s achievement, we are merely disguising from ourselves the enormity of the problem he poses. If his work is merely fine moments and dull quarters of an hour, it should not bother us so much that it is also morally troubling. It is a much more frightening situation if Tristan, the Ring, and Parsifal are masterpieces of the first order, which are not alien to, but instead spring directly from, the greatest artistic achievements of Wagner’s classical predecessors. Because if this is true, then the gnawing question he presents us—the question of the disparity between the beautiful and the good—is truly inescapable.


Nov 222010

I first read George Steiner in my twenties, and he made a lasting impression. He was a remarkable critic; his writing was transparent and his learning prodigious. Recently, after many years, I reread In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefi­ni­tion of Culture, and can report that it still has the elo­quence and power that I remem­bered. One of my favorite Steiner books, his controversial novella The Voyage to San Cristobal of A.H., forms the backdrop for the best discus­sion of Steiner that I know: “Interrogation at the Borders: George Steiner and the Trope of Translation” by Ronald Sharp, for­mer Dean at Vassar. Other works by Steiner that I recom­mend are After Babel: Aspects of Language and Trans­la­tion and Real Presences.

So, why didn’t the music say no?


Jun 182010

The world premiere of Nathan’s Tenebrae, for harp and string quartet, will be March 31, 2011, at Lincoln Center. It is sponsored by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and will be performed by Bridget Kibby and the Jupiter String Quartet. Tickets go on sale August 2 here.


Feb 052010

by Johann Sebastian Bach

The Cantata “Actus Tragicus”, BWV 106, is one of Bach’s greatest cantatas. Here is Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Part II), from a wonderful performance on period instruments by Joshua Rifkin and The Bach Ensemble.


Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit.
In ihm leben, weben und sind wir,
so lange er will.
In ihm sterben wir zu rechter Zeit,
wenn er will.

Ach Herr, lehre uns bedenken,
daß wir sterben müssen,
auf daß wir klug werden.

Bestelle dein Haus,
denn du wirst sterben
und nicht lebendig bleiben.

Es ist der alte Bund,
Mensch, du mußt sterben.
Ja, komm, Herr Jesu.

God’s time is the very best time.
In him we live, move, and have our being,
as long as he wills.
In him we die at the appointed time,
when he wills.

Ah Lord, teach us to remember
that we must die.
that we might gain wisdom.

Set thy house in order,
for thou shalt die
and not remain alive.

It is the ancient law:
man, thou must die.
Yea, come, Lord Jesus.

Recorded in 1985, Joshua Rifkin and The Bach Ensemble, with Ann Monoyios, Steven Rickards, Edmund Brownless, Jan Opalach. Decca

Jan 102010

Verdi’s Otello is a work very much of its time, and this is true nowhere more than in its treatment of love and the erotic.  The simplest illustration of this may be found in the stark contrasts between the opera and its source.

Shakespeare’s Othello, more than any other play, is haunted by the theme of sexual disgust.  A.C. Bradley writes of the way in which “the matter of a play seems to go on working in Shakespeare’s mind and reappears, generally in a weaker form, in his next play.” [1] But the reverse process may also obtain, wherein a theme appears in one play in nascent form, only to be revisited on a far vaster scale in the next.  Thus the appalled fascination with sexuality in Hamlet, which lies behind both the title character’s ambivalent treatment of Ophelia and his famous castigation of his mother,

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty! [2]

is echoed on a far vaster scale in Othello, taking root in the very first scene, in Iago’s mockery of Desdemona’s father, and growing until it all but dominates Othello’s mind.

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Dec 052009


Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) was a composer and virtuoso pianist who lived in Paris and knew both Chopin and Lizst. He was an orthodox Jew, and the legend is that he died when one of his bookcases fell on him (also a hazard in academic life).

This is Alkan’s transcription of the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #3, in c minor. The piano plays both the orchestra and piano parts. I like how pianist Marc-André Hamelin, the master of this ferociously difficult repertoire, delineates the orchestral and solo voices. But the remarkable thing about this piece is clearly the extraordinary cadenza that Alkan wrote — it is bizarre and breathtaking.

The piano enters at 3:06, the cadenza begins at 11:34.


Live performance by Marc-André Hamelin at Wigmore Hall, London, June 1994


Oct 292009

During May and June I listened to the live webcasts of most of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. I am not sure what to think about competitions in general — perhaps they are a necessary evil — but it was a good opportunity to hear wonderful young musicians and some remarkable performances. Early on, I was captivated by the music of 19 year-old Haochen Zhang of China, who eventually shared the gold medal. Here is his performance of the Beethoven Sonata in A flat, Op. 110:


In the semi-finals, Zhang programmed the complete Chopin Preludes, Op. 28. Here is the “Raindrop” Prelude:


and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit from the finals:


Finally, so that you can see him ‘in action’ — although the sound is not as good — here is a video from his performance of Lizst’s Spanish Rhapsody:

For video and good sound both, it is probably better to use the Silverlight streaming webcast from the Van Cliburn site, which also gives access to the complete archives.

Zhang is currently touring the U.S., and is scheduled to perform at the University of Vermont on March 5.


Oct 162009


My String Octet consists of four movements linked together to form one continuous arc. The piece is, in a sense, an extended cantata without words, and each move­ment but the second alludes, in a different fashion, to the forms of archaic vocal music. The first movement, marked Incipit, is much like the intonation that opens the Catholic liturgy; it begins with a meditation upon a single, elemental sound, which grows from near-silence into an austere, lonely chant.  This simple monody is joined by a second and then a third imitative line; the texture growing, at last, into a five-part motet, a dissonant and anguished shadow of the great sacred vocal works of Josquin and Palestrina. This leads directly into the second movement, marked Sinfonia in the sense that word held during the early Baroque period when it implied an instrumental interlude within a cantata or an oratorio. This sharp, violent music propels the piece toward the apex of the arc, the beginning of the third movement. Marked Recitative, it is a feverish soliloquy for the first cellist, accom­panied lightly by the rest of the ensemble, and ending in catastrophe. The dying sounds of the third movement fade finally into the fourth, a chorale, in which the music comes as if from a great distance, halting and enigmatic, retreating until it vanishes into the elemental sound with which the piece began.


May 152009
God created the integers; the rest is the work of man.
Leopold Kronecker


What are we saying when we talk about music?

This question captures the paradox that lies at the heart of musical theory. Put in its most basic form, the problem that has dogged musical theory since Boethius has to do with the relationship between reason and the esthetic sense. The earliest theories show that the coexistence between the two was never an entirely easy one:

In the final analysis, it was to this that the Pythagoreans’ harmonic analysis of the universe led: the discovery of incommensurables. And no matter how they might juxtapose the numbers, no matter to what lengths they might extend their mathematical circumlocutions, one fact remained, a fact that has ever since proved resistant to mathematical rationalization: there is no fraction m/n that will divide the whole-tone into two equal parts.[1]

The Pythagorean construction of music was an attempt at reconciling the rational and the beautiful — at showing that they are, indeed, one and the same. In this sense it was a corollary to the impulse behind the Parthenon: the Athenians believed that the golden ratio, applied to every dimension of a structure, would create something that was beautiful precisely because of its mathematical perfection.

In music, as mentioned in the previous quote, this dream was quickly shown to be illusory. While the Parthenon was constructed ex nihilo, and could perfectly mirror the rational dreams of its designers, the Pythagorean theorists of music were con­fronted from the beginning with a stubborn fact: there were pre-existing and deeply engrained notions of what constituted the proper and beautiful in music — the whole tone, the semi-tone, the modes, the tuning of the lyre — and, although they hovered tantalizingly close to the realm of reason, they ultimately eluded its grasp.

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May 132009

It is important to have heroes.  When I was young Van Cliburn was one of my heroes. This performance, with Kirill Kondrashin in Moscow in 1962, came four years after his victory in the Tchaikovsky Competition — an event that precipitated a cultural thaw in the cold war.  Notice Nikita Khrushchev applauding at the end.

The thirteenth Van Cliburn Competition is May 22 to June 7 in Fort Worth — with live webcasts here.

Feb 252009

Artur Bieleki characterizes the Fantasie, Op. 49, as “one of the pinnacles of Chopin’s creative art” and according to Niecks “Chopin’s genius had now reached the most per­fect stage of its development, radiating with all the inten­sity of which its nature was capable.” The Fantasie begins with a mys­ter­ious march-like preamble, followed by an astonishing free-form expo­si­tion. The middle section consists of a beautiful cho­rale, which abruptly gives way to a recapit­ula­tion and a slight wisp of a coda. The music is wayward and power­ful. The performance is by Hannah: