To say that someone has a musical gift, or is gifted, usually means that they have unusual talent or can perform beautifully for others. I mean something quite different here.
When I say “musical gift” in this and the next two posts, I mean a gift to me, one that enhances my enjoyment of music. I was granted these through no effort on my own––no long, arduous hours of practice.
Opportunities to learn
The first of the three gifts is opportunity. It came in multiple ways.
My father sold pianos through his store. We always had a piano in the house; it was part of the store’s inventory. If anyone wanted that model he could sell it as a lightly used piano. That meant that we might discover that our much loved mahogany spinet might be suddenly hauled away and replaced by a large black upright, or in later years by an electronic keyboard.
There’s a land I know where the bluebonnets grow that is paradise to me,
From Amarillo skies down to Mexico, from the Pecos to the sea
Kenneth Threadgill, “Coming back to Texas”
Fifty years ago, I heard Kenneth Threadgill and the Hootenanny Hoots perform “Coming back to Texas” at the Split Rail in South Austin. This was in the “land that gave me birth.”
I went with good friends to share pitchers of beer, enjoy fried onion rings, and listen to great music performed by Threadgill, George McLean, and other notables. I should retract that. The music wasn’t always “great,” especially when folks like me chose to sing along.
“Fraulein” was a favorite and we weren’t awake enough to see that the term might be sexist. We were transported by lines like
Far across deep blue waters, lives an old German’s daughter
By the banks of the old river Rhine.
It was easy to ignore the fact that the actual subject of the song was a German-American living in Houston. If the singer had really meant
By the same stars above you, I swear that I love you
You are my pretty fraulein
he might have put more effort into just making the relationship work, not dreaming about the old river Rhine.
The Lone Star and Pearl longneck beers were cheap, there was no cover charge, no dress code, and no paving in the parking area. Hippies, cowboys, and graduate students mingled with little concern for status or political beliefs.
This was the Old Austin, near its end. Today, the streets around the Capitol and the University are just a tiny eye of calm in the middle of the hurricane of highways, suburban developments, and booming tech industry that characterize the New Austin.
But the real purpose of our stop in Austin was not to reminisce, but to see family, just a few of whom are shown here in a photo from dining out. The family time has been far more precious than even the memories of the Split Rail.
In 1986, Vladimir Horowitz, came out of depression and semi-retirement. He re-entered Moscow after 61 years to deliver one of the best piano concerts ever.
A PBS special includes much of the actual performance and fascinating background on the politics, his personal life, and the music. I enjoyed it on many levels.
My Dad would have loved it, too. He had died 17 years earlier, but he was a big fan of Horowitz’s, and of course Steinways, which he sold in his piano store. He also hated and feared the USSR. He would have totally understood the requirement to have Horowitz’s personal Steinway shipped to Moscow under Marine Corps guard.
I like the fact that Horowitz, especially this late Horowitz, chose mostly intermediate level pieces, especially the Chopin and the Mozart. I can at least play at many of them, but he shows how they can really be played. I’ve been working on the Schumann Träumerai (near the end) for 67 years. Listening to this concert just made it better.
Horowitz didn’t strive for virtuosity (the “pyrotechnics”) as many young, modern performers do. He lets the music speak. He makes more mistakes than most champion performers would do, but they’re totally immaterial. As some of the commentators point out, he never forces the notes.
The show is available through PBS online until February 20 (click on the image above). I hope you enjoy it.
Today is the centennial of my father’s birth. He lived not much over half of that century, a period that has grown shorter in my eyes with each passing year.
Dad loved music in many forms–opera, chamber, symphonic, piano, vocal, jazz, Big Band, and more. Around 1950, he opened Bruce Piano Company. The store sold Steinways and provided pianos for performers visiting the Fort Worth Symphony and Opera.
We often argued during the years that were to be his last and my first as a nominal adult. There were the perennial favorites of politics and religion, but special features such as how I didn’t understand what it meant to grow up in the Great Depression, what was wrong with contemporary pop music, and how I would benefit from more direction in my life.
I’m stubborn like Dad was, so my views probably haven’t changed much since then. Still, I’d give a lot to have the briefest time with him again, even if it were an argument. I might even be able to listen better.
My Dad was a good husband, father, friend, and community member. At his funeral, our minister quoted Jesus, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth that which is good.”
On the whole, I have fond memories and few regrets. However, one big regret is that he knew his children only as teenagers, and never met any of his six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. I know that he would have been very proud of all of them, and that they would have richer lives knowing him.
I’ve been working on a piano sonata by Beethoven (No. 31 in A♭, Opus 110) for a long time. That project may last a lifetime. But I plan to continue both for the sake of the music and for the person who had been guiding me to attempt this work at the edge of my ability.
The piece is beautiful, with contrasting moods, but overall a feeling of melancholy. When it was published, one critic said that its tonality was “emotionally as black as night” and another that it was “a key of the grave, death, the Last Judgement, eternity.” I can blame Beethoven’s music for only a part of that feeling. A larger reason is that Deborah Geithner, my teacher and friend is no longer here.
Deborah combined perceptive listening with helpful suggestions for performance and practice. But more than that, she brought wit, insight, caring, and encouragement to her teaching. I often had mixed feeling about the path of a lesson. I enjoyed talking with her about people, art, politics, travel, and life, while at the same time feeling that I should focus on learning to read music. But then she’d generously allow extra time so that my lessons extended well past the allotted time. This happened again and again, despite her amazing schedule of teaching, performing, writing, and supporting family and friends.
Deborah’s voice is still in my head, especially, of course, when I’m practicing. She would delve deeply into a piece of music, comparing editions, and trying out different interpretations. But that intensity only added, rather than supplanted, a concern for the person and enjoyment of the music.
She didn’t like talk about perfection (as in “but I played it perfectly in practice at home!”). The goal wasn’t to avoid mistakes, nor was it to strive for some fixed standard. Instead, it was to explore oneself and the music to have value in the present and nurture growth. Her students were all ages and ability levels. They included students of voice and other instruments. Always, there was an effort to expand horizons.
At one student workshop, one student might play a duet with another or with Deborah. Another might play only the right hand melody of a piece they were learning. Yet another might be tackling a difficult composition. Deborah managed to support students wherever they were, always opening doors to further development, but recognizing what they could do in the here and now.
There will be memorial services, laudatory obituaries, and other expressions of Deborah’s many contributions to communities around the world, and especially, to her recent years as a supporter of chamber music, literature, painting, and other arts on Cape Cod. Her unique energy, compassion, intelligence, and sensitivity will not be matched again. But most of all, for those who had the privilege to know her, she will be missed as a special friend.
Given the many enticements, meetings, and demands of travel, I’ve found it difficult to play piano as much as I’d like. But the universities have been very accommodating with their practice rooms. And I’ve even found pianos in unexpected places.
One was in the garden of the lovely hotel, Assos Alarga. With only three rooms, i’ts billed as “the smallest hotel.” The grounds of Assos Alarga were an ancient stone quarry, providing material for the development of Assos, where Aristotle taught biology (my major subject in college). The hotel building is made of stone, which seems to blend into the ruins of Assos.
Rachmaninoff Prelude in c#
Our hosts had a small collection of sheet music. I couldn’t believe at first the piece I saw on top. It was one I have on my list to learn, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in c♯.
That prelude has a long history for me. My father sold pianos. When a customer asked to see a piano, especially a grand piano, but was too shy to play it, he would play the first two lines of the piece. Even if you can’t read music, you can see from the score the dramatic contrasts between the thundering ff (fortissimo) chords and the ppp (piano pianissimo) echoes. You may also appreciate the large chords and jumps from low to high notes.
Dad could play those first two lines very well. Then, he’d invite the customer to try the piano themselves. He was lucky that they didn’t ask him to play more, because he couldn’t play it and had just memorized that one section. As a child I learned a transcription of the piece into d, but never the original. Seeing the music in this unexpected location, I felt that I’d been given a message that it was time for me to really learn to play it.
I only had a brief time to play in the garden, and mostly stumbled through some Chopin waltzes I had worked on before. But just being there was magical. I felt connected to the long history of Assos and to the music of Turkey. There are the many ethnic traditions of music within Turkey, but also a strong tradition of Western classical music.
Thinking about music in Turkey, I began to listen more to Fazil Say, a genius composer/performer, who crosses many musical boundaries. You can see much of his work online, including performances of his own compositions, classical renditions (exquisite performances of Bach), Gershwin, and hybrid pieces such as his jazz version of Mozart’s Rondo all Turca.
To me, Say’s gestures occasionally seem overly dramatic and his interpretations equally so, but he’s always fascinating to listen to. He’s clearly one of the most talented modern composers and performers anywhere, someone that Turkey may justly celebrate as part of their contribution to world music.
I like many of his works, but Kara Toprack (Black Earth) is especially haunting:
My venue was ideal. Set at one end of a small performance hall, there was a new Yamaha grand piano, similar to the one shown here. There were plenty of chairs, but no actual people listening. There was a nice view of trees and the rest of UNMB outside the fourth-floor windows.
On the wall was a poster advertising the George Enescu annual international music festival. As one of the world’s best modern composers, Enescu was also an outstanding violinist, pianist, and conductor. The poster displayed his image looking directly at my seat at the piano.
I decided to start with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A♭, Opus 110. I’ve been working on this one for a long time. It’s very challenging for me, although there are moments when I can play it well enough to get lost in the beauty of the music.
Universitatea Națională de Muzică din București
When I started I couldn’t help but notice Enescu’s stare. According to Wikipedia/Vincent d’Indy, if Beethoven’s works were destroyed, Enescu could reconstruct them all from memory. Would he approve of my feeble efforts? Was it an insult to his memory to be playing that beautiful sonata in front of him?
As I began to play, these thoughts disturbed me. Then I heard Enescu say, “why are you paying attention to me? You should focus on Beethoven, even more on this particular piece.” I turned back to the music, but other thoughts interfered. The score was backlit by the sunlight through the windows; the bench didn’t seem to be adjusted right; I wondered whether I should have had coffee first. Enescu spoke up again: “Yes it’s a wonderful spring day in Bucharest, but you want to play this sonata. Forget the light, the bench, the coffee. Leave it behind and feel the music.”
I knew that he knew I was missing notes, stretching the rhythm, and phrasing in ways Beethoven never imagined. It must have pained his musical ear, if not his musical soul. But he knew, as I’m beginning to learn, that with practice those things can improve. What mattered was to bring my full attention to the music.
I plodded along, trying to ignore all the distractions. Then it happened.
Maybe it was because I realized this was just between Beethoven, Enescu, and me. No one else was there. The wonderful venue didn’t matter. And Enescu had made it clear he wasn’t relevant either. For the first time, I really began to hear the music. I played the entire sonata beginning to end. Forget the fact that my tempo was about a third of Enescu’s and that the list of “areas for improvement” would be longer than War and Peace.
Enescu helped me, just for a moment, to go from struggling to experiencing. I think of his lifelong passion of music, and what it must have meant to him to feel that kind of loss of self and immersion in music as he both traversed and added to the repertoire.
We don’t have any further performances scheduled at the Conservatory on this trip. I’m sorry if you missed it!
The video clip (1978) is of Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody N° 1 Op 11, with Sergiu Celibidache conducting the Bucharest George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra at the Romanian Athenaeum.
It was nearly two centuries ago (1830) that Frédéric Chopin came to Paris. There, he met Franz Liszt and other musicians; he also began his famous relationship with George Sand.
In Paris, he discovered the Pleyel piano, his lifetime favorite, and performed his first and last concerts at Salle Pleyel, which remains a major, active concert hall.
Chopin’s waltz on a Pleyel
It’s beyond presumptuous to put myself in that tradition, but still, there’s something very pleasant about playing one of Chopin’s a minor waltzes on a Pleyel in Paris. The piano is new; it’s so shiny that you can see the reflection of the Père Lachaise cemetery (where both Chopin and Pleyel are buried) from across the street.
This apartment has a good collection of Chopin, Bach, Debussy, and other classical composers. There’s a late 19C edition of Beethoven’s Sonatas, as well as Monty Python, Frank Sinatra, and Jacques Brel. There’s even a guest book, specifically for musicians, which was provided by a previous guest in the apartment.
Temple Bar is an area with narrow, cobbled streets on the south bank of the Liffey in central Dublin. It’s famous the world over for its lively nightlife, but that’s not high on my list of reasons to visit it. There are better places in Dublin to experience Irish food and music, ones where you’re more likely to encounter people who actually live in Ireland. However, the area does offer much that’s special, such as the Irish Film Institute.
One that we just discovered is The Icon Walk, a project of The Icon Factory. It’s located just off Fleet Street, along Aston Place, Bedford Lane, and Price’s Lane. Local artists have transformed the lanes into an open air gallery of Irish culture. It’s recently been awarded approval as a UNESCO City of Literature site.
Someone described the Walk as a twenty minute activity, but it deserves more than that. There’s a great collection of photographs, drawings, paintings accompanying sayings of famous writers and artists, descriptions of moments in the history of sports, movies, fashion, and more.
Arriving at the Playwrights section, we read,
Around 1610, Shakespeare wrote the “The Tempest” and retired to Stratford on Avon where he died in 1613. Queen Elizabeth I having completed the conquest of Ireland was dead. The last of the great leaders, O’Neill and O’Donnell were gone to Spain and Ulster planted with Crown subjects.
Between 1613 and the War Of independence in 1922, which won back self rule for most of Ireland, no play of real merit was written in the English language by anyone other than by an Irish-born writer.
The selected icons–Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, and Oscar Wilde–won’t be enough to convince everyone of that claim, but their collective oeuvre is amazing.
Along the walk, you can see many great images produced by a wide variety of artists. A few of those are on the website, but the majority are visible only on the walk itself. They’re best seen that way, in any case, in the context of the other artworks and Temple Bar itself.
One of the best parts for me was the individual quotes, both from writer’s works and from their lives. For example, we read,
Beckett went on to live with an older woman who was not exactly a barrel of laughs. She took the phonecall that informed them of Samuel’s Nobel Prize. “This is a disaster, our lives are ruined” she responded.
In the eighties, Beckett was invited to Germany to direct “Waiting For Godot”. When presented with the script which he had not read in many years he exclaimed; “This thing needs a good edit”.
John Hume, third from left
(Again, however, most of these texts exist only on the walls. I hope there will be an exhibition book at some point.)
One thing I learned was that in 2010 John Hume was chosen in an RTÉ survey as Ireland’s Greatest. He was also the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (1998), the Gandhi Peace Prize, and the Martin Luther King award. He had modeled his own work for equality in citizenship on that of Gandhi and King. Unfortunately, his peaceful work was disrupted by violence and the “troubles” began. Hume became a leading figure in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. Through speeches, marches, hunger strikes, dialogues, and long-term negotiations, Hume was behind many of the developments and agreements toward peace in Ireland, and later for European unity.
You can get a sense of the walk from the video below (only part of which is in English):
As we’re about to set off on a trip both to explore and to discuss progressive education, I’m thinking about the example of the Misiones Pedagógicas in Spain in the early 1930’s.
My colleague, Iván M. Jorrín Abellán, just sent a link to a digital copy of the 1934 report: Patronato de Misiones Pedagógicas : septiembre de 1931-diciembre de 1933, in the collection of the Bibliotecas de Castilla y León. It tells the story of the Misiones through text, photos, and a map. Even if your Spanish is as poor as mine you can enjoy the many photos and get enough of the text to appreciate the project.
Some of the photos of uplifted, smiling faces are a bit much for today’s cynical eyes. Still, it’s hard to deny that something important was happening for both the villagers and the missionaries.
The Misiones Pedagógicas were a project of cultural solidarity sponsored by the government of the Second Spanish Republic, created in 1931 and dismantled by Franco at the end of the civil war. Led by Manuel Bartolomé Cossio, the Misiones included over five hundred volunteers from diverse backgrounds: teachers, artists, students, and intellectuals. A former educational missionary, Carmen Caamaño, said in an interview in 2007:
We were so far removed from their world that it was as if we came from another galaxy, from places that they could not even imagine existed, not to mention how we dressed or what we ate, or how we talked. We were different. –quoted in Roith (2011)
Listening to music, outdoors
The Misiones eventually reached about 7,000 towns and villages. They established 5,522 libraries comprising more than 600,000 books. There were hundreds of performances of theatre and choir and exhibitions of painting through the traveling village museum.
We are a traveling school that wants to go from town to town. But a school where there are no books of registry, where you do not learn in tears, where there will be no one on his knees as formerly. Because the government of the Republic sent to us, we have been told we come first and foremost to the villages, the poorest, the most hidden and abandoned, and we come to show you something, something you do not know for always being so alone and so far from where others learn, and because no one has yet come to show it to you, but we come also, and first, to have fun. –Manuel Bartolomé Cossio, December 1931
There’s an excellent documentary on the Misiones, with English subtitles. It conveys simultaneously the grand vision and the naïveté, the successes and the failures. As Caamaño says, “something unbelievable arrived” [but] “it lasted for such a short time.”
Watching a film
In her study of Spanish visual culture from 1929 to 1939, Jordana Mendelson (2005) examines documentary films and other re-mediations of materials from the Misiones experience. Her archival research offers a fascinating contemporary perspective on the cultural politics of that turbulent decade, including the intersections between avant-garde artists and government institutions, rural and urban, fine art and mass culture, politics and art.
I’m struck by several thoughts as I view the documentation on the Misiones. Today’s Spain is more literate, more urban, more “modern”. But although the economic stresses are different, they have not disappeared. There are still challenges, in some ways greater, for achieving economic and educational justice.
Iván and other educators are asking how the spirit of the Misiones might influence community-based pedagogy in current times. Their experiences have lessons for those outside of Spain as well.
Roith, Christian (2011).High culture for the underprivileged: The educational missions in the Spanish Second Republic 1931 – 1936. In Claudia Gerdenitsch & Johanna Hopfner, (eds.), Erziehung und bildung in ländlichen regionen–Rural education (pp. 179-200). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.