N oblesse sans oblige. Celia Lipton Farris was traumatized last year when her Palm Beach mansion was flooded by Hurricane Rita and the damage cost the British actress and socialite over $1 million to repair. But it wasn’t the money that flipped Farris out. It was being trapped in the house for several days by the rising waters, and she vowed never to be at nature’s mercy again. Farris has removed her vintage Cadillac from the garage and replaced it with a 20-foot boat with a 150-horsepower engine. ‘After seeing the people of New Orleans suffer the floods, I thank God I am in a position to be prepared for the worst,’ she said.”
New York Post, Page Six, 06-SEP-2006
An early supper at the Omni Parker House Hotel in Boston.
Concierge: This is not like any other Hotel you’ll ever see. It’s not depressing here at all. In fact we pride ourselves on the fact that it’s so uplifting and cheerful. You’ll notice the place is immaculately maintained. We have the finest chefs and everyone here is happy and friendly. You’ll see.
The hostess seats us; the waiter comes and takes our order. We sit, smiling and listening, casually looking around at the elaborate bouquets and chandeliers in the elegant room with the 20-foot ceiling and gilded moulding.
CMT: This Mozart piano “Sonata No. 16 in C Major”, K.545, is this Schiff or Uchida?
DSM: I don’t know. It is a man. It isn’t Gould. But hear the pianist humming softly. Might be Andreas Haefliger. There are not so many structures of great moment in this sonata, you know? It has the demeanor of an earnest and bubbly teenager. That said, the harmonic progressions in the slow movement are remarkably complex and touching, and on that basis I think this piece might win the prize for “The Least Tiresome of The Most-Played Pieces Ever Written”!
It is 6:30 pm and the 30 year-old caregiver, Belinda, escorts the ninety-something Mrs. Gold directly into the walnut-paneled dining room. The two women proceed directly to a table along the interior wall. This is where Mrs. Gold and her companion have supper most nights of the week. It has been so for more than a decade.
CMT: Look! The Maitre’D brings those two their drinks without any words spoken. This must be what they always have when they are here. Mrs. Gold seems mildly annoyed at the pace of the Mozart allegro, slightly resentful that there are still young people in the world.
DSM: Clearly one can view the innocence of this sonata in different lights.
CMT: Well, there’s no silence anywhere in it. The entire piece is cheerfully diverting, entirely extroverted. It’s stridently expressive, as if one person’s expression matters in the world. Mrs. Gold stares straight ahead into the dining room—see! She sits on the same side of the table as her young companion, sipping her whiskey sour, acting as if her companion isn’t even there!
DSM: The Sonata in C, K. 545a sonata that Mozart wrote for beginners. Every piano student today can testify to having played this. Hard to properly reveal the bass notes, though. The memorable treble melody and the clarity of tone in the upper register are what get the attention in most pianists’ rendering of it. But whoever this pianist is distinguishes the recapitulation from the exposition by playing the first theme mezzo piano instead of mezzo forte as in the exposition. See, the ending coda goes through dynamic gradations of mezzo forte to forte to mezzo piano . . . Who is this playing?
CMT: Movement two begins simply. It’s still a beginner’s piece, yet amenable with a slow tempo and slight rubatos. Now in the third section of the movement, here is Mozart’s darker side with the ascending scales in the bass. All of a sudden everything’s quiet, and the movement rounds off with a coda.
DSM: The third movement—the rondo. It’s played here in a defined manner, with a clear pulse. By not playing it too fast, the pianist reminds us that this sonata was written for beginners who don’t yet have the technical efficiency that much of Mozart requires. This is still the happy Mozart, yet there’s a certain caution that can be perceived. The heavy coda is followed by a silent ending. Look, the African waiter with his hands behind his back looks as if he wishes the music to resume.
CMT: Did you know that Ho Chi Minh was once a sous baker in the kitchen here, in the early years of the 20th Century?
Belinda: It’s okay. Why exactly are you crying?
Mrs. Gold: I miss Rose! [sobs quietly]
Belinda: But you hardly even knew her.
Mrs. Gold: I know it seems that way, but I knew her a lot better years ago, before you came. She was a wonderful woman.
Belinda: I thought you said she was a complainer.
Mrs. Gold: That too, but she was wonderful and a complainer at the same time. I should have spent more time with her.
Belinda: I’m sorry. [puts her arm around Mrs. Gold]
CMT: Belinda, the caregiver companion, has a secret identity. She is a superheroine, and the ladies’ room in every restaurant is her global headquarters. She sees a signal from somewhere, makes a quick dash to the room, changes into her special costume, saves the world, fights the evil forces of the universe, then returns. No. More likely she just needs a break from the intense Mrs. Gold. Yes, there is Belinda again. Belinda has circled around after the trip to the ladies’ room and is talking with the restaurant’s hostess. Mrs. Gold, alone at the table, stares straight ahead into the center of the large dining room—hands folded on her lap, perseverating with the corner of her napkin. Belinda has been away now for more than 10 minutes. Mrs. Gold cannot understand Mozart through the music anymore.
DSM: This reminds me that the appropriation by educators of Piaget's theories of child development led to the dissemination of the concept of age-related developmental stages. There is, rightly or wrongly now, a conjectured ceiling set on the ability to think—the apparent cognitive stage that the child has reached is a ceiling that one dare not go beyond. Teachers have been advised not to try to accelerate the emergence of successive stages. And there is, I see now, a corresponding appropriation of these ideas by well-meaning people caring for the elderly. Whatever the apparent age-related regression or debility, one dare not transgress the cognitive stage with stimuli of a different stage.
CMT: But this is not for no reason. There is an emotional dissonance that can be expected—as you saw on Mrs. Gold’s face. Oh, I suppose Belinda’s wish to reverse some of the regression by stimulation is understandable. But it may be futile. And if the exposure to the youthfulness, the exuberance, is insistent and relentless—in your face—it’s not surprising that the response is negative. Sad to say, it’s a little like second-hand tobacco smoke to that person. The Mozart is not pleasurable—it becomes emotionally toxic. It’s a reminder of losses, a reminder of Rose and of Mr. Gold, a reminder of your own mortality. Not that such reminders aren’t valuable—only that you may not want them in your face. The cheerful innocence of Mozart is sometimes unbearable. This dining room is full of it, nonstop. Things can conspire to just be perfectly cruel, can’t they!
Belinda, to Hostess: Her husband, Mr. Gold, died October 30th ten years ago. He died at their grandson’s home. It was Halloween eve. He had been in good health, even had held a dinner the night before. And then suddenly he went out of the room, just went down to lie down and passed away. We had gone to the grandson’s home to carve pumpkins with the great-grandchildren. And Mr. Gold just seemed a little unsteady and asked if he could go in the other room and lay down for a few minutes, and that was it.
Hostess: And he was—did you know he was dead?
Belinda: When we got to him it was pretty apparent that he was gone.
Hostess: And everyone thought what? Heart attack, right?
Belinda: Yes. Yes, yes. And it seemed so peaceful.
CMT: Paul Ricoeur returns to this question in a number of essays. He establishes the independence of the text first from the writer/composer—‘What the text signifies no longer coincides with what the author meant’—and also from the original audience, or, for that matter, from any single reading, and so from any and all subsequent readers. In Bakhtine’s way of saying, the text or music achieves its own voices. Ricoeur’s hermeneutical program leads him to establish the identity of the text in terms of its interpretation: the text is found in what it means.
DSM: To say that this brain activity is a real instantiation of the sonata would then be parallel to saying that cloud formations are a real instantiation of weather; and we might do worse than this. But at least two complications are involved. First, the sonata would now be fragmented into an unknown multitude of private readings, their differences depending amongst other things on how well listeners knew the works of Mozart, and on what personal intertextualities were evoked by their hearings of the work. Secondly, the patterns of brain activity produced by the sonata are not materializations of the sonata in the same way as written signs or sound waves, because the individual brain which hosts them is itself highly patterned beforehand. This is not to invoke “innatist” theories of language or music, although it may also do that. Whether innate or acquired, the prior patterning of the mind weighs heavily on the resulting perception you have of it. A reading of the sonata as it takes place in the brain is a tertiary field of “interference,” formed from a large number of fields of which the input from the written page of music and the prior patterning of the mind are just two inputs among many.
CMT: These are abstractions, and some are more or less ‘tertiary’ than others. This tertiariness is not a range of different states, but a single condition of perception: whatever comes to mind is in tertiary form in that it is composed of other forms that interact. If we can pick out those other forms they will also be tertiary forms. They are not hierarchically or sequentially organized. So when we talk of a sonata in this way we are not handling a sequentially organized text. The third text which has quickened in the marriage of the ‘original’ (invisible, unplayable) sonata and the patterned brain and constitutes our understanding of the sonata—does not exist as a serial construct.
DSM: More than this, the sonata—any logical or artistic serial creation, for that matter—does not acquire its seriality until late in the process of creation. Penrose quotes Hadamard for accounts of creative activity where music (Mozart) or mathematical theorems (Poincaré) are formed in the minds of their creators whole, in nonsequential form; days or weeks of hard work are then needed to commit these inspired creations to paper. Coleridge’s account of the genesis and loss of Kubla Khan is an example. Mozart is maybe the best example. Mrs. Gold is losing her grip on logic and is having difficulty with seriality. And, obviously, the invisible magical sonata no longer registers with the patterns in her brain. All that registers with Mrs. Gold is Mozart’s immutable, disturbing youth.
CMT: Come to think of it, is there any evidence that Mozart understood what it is like to be old?
- Eschenbach C. Mozart Sonatas. (Deutsche Grammophon, 1999.)
- Schiff A. Mozart Sonatas. (Decca, 1997.)
- Uchida M. Mozart Sonatas. (Phillips, 1990.)
- Penrose R. The Emperor’s New Mind. Oxford Univ, 1990.
- Ricoeur P. Memory, History, Forgetting. Univ Chicago, 2006.
- Ricoeur P. 1981. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Cambridge Univ, 1981.
- Parker House Hotel, Boston