27 September 2006

The View from Giants' Shoulders

DSM: It is a delight to listen to senior artists—Menahem Pressler is a vivid example—whose creativity and energy continue to blossom even after age 80. Hearing Menahem perform the Beethoven Piano Sonata in A flat Major Op. 110 this past Spring, for example, was spectacular. People normally consider advancing years as a problem—and perhaps it is for certain technical aspects of performance. But the depth of Menahem's conception of the autobiographicism and "twilightness" in Beethoven’s narrative was such that I could hardly imagine a young person understanding, let alone conveying, what Menahem did. Do you think that a certain tenure on this planet is necessary to certain themes or modes of expression? Is it necessary, do you think, to have coped with the death of family members or friends —or to anticipate one’s own mortality—to be able properly animate the perplexity and depth of some pieces?

CMT: This late Beethoven-Pressler pairing is a good example to use to pose the question! But of course there are many others—artists and composers. Having had (and having also recovered from — ) a serious illness some thirty years ago, I have now a different view of Beethoven’s later works than I had before my illness. My suspicion is that most Beethoven scholars and critics have been people who were in good health at the time they formulated their opinions and interpretations.

Indeed, I suspect that many such scholars have never known serious or life-threatening illness first-hand, at least not at the time of their writing. I think it helps to have had an encounter with serious illness or disability to properly comprehend and be fully moved by this music.

DSM: Transformational processes were surely a frequent subject in Beethoven’s later work—the duality of Op. 110’s lamenting Arioso dolente and the aspiring Fugue—suggesting the transmutability of one emotion into another, of one state of one’s soul into another. But Beethoven’s annotation of this passage “nach und nach sich neu belebend” (gradually coming anew to Life) is a significant clue. Do you think that Op. 110 may be about an intermediate closure, a welcomed remission of his chronic illness, a remission that may have inspired this piece?

CMT: In fact, maybe Op. 110 is a narrative of a series of respites, and recurrences, and recoveries between 1820 and 1822, whose outcome was still uncertain for Beethoven at the time—rather than a narrative of linear or ultimate finality. Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang of Op. 132 reminds me of this also.

DSM: Illness and recovery from it transforms our perceptions and puts things in a new perspective. Susan Sontag’s writings about this are especially thoughtful. I think Beethoven was reflecting on his own repeated gradually comings anew to Life—the astonishing resilience of the body and spirit, despite what Life dishes out.

This psychology was clearly behind other of Beethoven’s later writing. And to adequately render Op. 110 and other late works requires going considerably “beyond the notes” as Pressler does so elegantly and earnestly—to address Beethoven’s emotional dualities, and his meditations on the interrelations between birth and life and suffering and other transformations—mortality, yes, but more about finiteness or limitation than death per se.

CMT: I love that Pressler mentions “Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich” in his remarks about Op. 110. I am sure that others in the audience are touched by this as well. Beethoven’s deprecation of bum-like self and bum-like others is on one level droll, but there is a touch of pathos in it also.

Beethoven’s unpredictability begins in deceptive simplicity. And the multi-layered theme arises indirectly, as part of or as a consequence of a larger unfolding process – his Kunstvereinigung, almost like an “averted gaze”; a unification that, if one watches it like a pot, will not boil. This seemed to be implied by Pressler’s remarks to the audience before beginning to play.

DSM: His rendering of the witty scherzo-like Allegro molto alludes to the folksong about bum-itude. And then that passage is recalled near the end of the fugue finale—where the texture of double-diminution helps to reveal Beethoven’s resolution, the positive conclusion in the tonic major.

This indirect, averted approach—the humorous/vulgar lüderlich folksong and the later allusion to it—conveys, I think, a profound and unexpected admonishment for us to be humble and open to all of the experiences in life, a posture that is essential for fulfillment and meaning. At least that is how what Beethoven says here strikes me.

CMT: I hear op. 110 and I think that Theodor Adorno’s “We do not understand music—music understands us” ( Beethoven: Philosophy of Music, ed. Tiedemann, Polity Press, 1998, p. xi. ) is evocative but off the mark.

Instead, I believe this music embodies the transcendent insights and understandings that Beethoven had himself reached.

DSM: Yes, Pressler’s superb reanimation of the music is what enables us to reach these understandings ourselves. I do not think that a person under 80 years old is likely to have the scope of thought and feeling that Pressler communicates to us. Conceivable but not likely. Provocative and moving in any case, rare as it is. The entire process is invention, creation, making out of literally nothing, or out of any materials that may be to hand ( Roots of Romanticism, ed. Hardy, Princeton Univ. Press, 1999, p. 119. ). This may have been true of Beethoven, but it is no less true of what artists in later life give to us. It is pure invention, made for us out of thin air.

25 September 2006

Daily Papers' Classical Coverage

Shipwrecked in Mass-Media Ocean
CMT: Diminishing diversity of news coverage perspective has gone hand-in-hand with reducing the number of newspapers per city, usually to one. With broadcast TV, the variety of channels is superficial and misleading when it comes to news coverage. We're sort of marooned on a sea of mass-media, and there's relatively little fresh-water arts coverage to drink. What kinds of studies, if any, have attempted to look at these trends and their impact on chamber music or on classical music in general?

DSM: This is as good a time as any to wonder at the “rationing” of newspaper coverage of classical and pop music, or broader entertainment and media coverage. Some lucky cities seem to be in good shape, with generous and diverse coverage of all genres. Other cities are not so fortunate. While there is much that I can appreciate in each genre, it seems to me that there is not much in common between Pop and Classical music, nor is it likely that a writer or critic whose affinities and experience are predominantly with one genre will be a good match for covering others. The approach to tonality, to rhythm and meter, to the creation of meaning - is dramatically different in classical music than in pop music. Writing about one of the genres requires a deep understanding of the material, how it is performed, and the lore and history of it. And it's hard for any one writer to adequately grasp all of those features and differences -- for one genre, let alone several of them.

So it might be an advantage for a paper to engage many more freelance writers than they do now (to cover the various genres), rather than hope for any increase in full-time staff assigned to classical music. And it’s a disadvantage that so many dailies assign their local critic(s) to write reviews of mass-market media like movies and CDs. It might be better if they instead bought syndicated reviews of those mass-market products, and conserved their few local resources for reviewing performances or products that are done locally. This would help to insure that the local culture for classical music and chamber music stays vibrant and thriving.

The National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University has been examining the trends in classical music reporting, including chamber music criticism, for some time. Their recent reports are freely available here:

You might also like to have a look at: