Musical Conversations

Music is often like conversation.  Sometimes the soloist is a “speaker” telling a story.  Other times, it is a dialogue between members of an ensemble.  I am speaking mainly about classical chamber music here.  Orchestral music occasionally has “speeches”…more on that later…but chamber music is full of conversations.  In fact, most chamber music seems to me to consist mainly of conversations among the players.  It is that interaction and communication during performances that has turned me from an orchestral music fan to a chamber music fan.  I still like orchestral music.  But I LOVE chamber music!

I was listening to a sonata for clarinet and piano by Johannes Brahms the other night…Opus 120 No. 2.  This piece is just a beautiful dialogue between the two players.  It’s as if they are such close friends…or maybe lovers…that each knows what the other is going to say, and when one starts a sentence, the other finishes it.  Brahms was, of course, a romantic composer, and his chamber music abounds with examples of romantic musical conversations.  The second movement of his clarinet quintet, Opus 115, has a long story told by the clarinet.  It seems to be a sad story.  Brahms’ late chamber music is often described as “autumnal.”  It has a bittersweet, nostalgic quality.  Brahms came out of retirement late in his life to write these pieces.  He was re-energized by a young clarinet virtuoso named Richard Mühlfeld.  He wrote several pieces for him, dedicated them to him, and even went on concert tour with him to showcase the pieces and Mr. Mühlfeld.  They are my favorite Brahms pieces, and among my all-time favorites.

Every April we attend the Coleman Chamber Music Competition.  It is held on the California Institute of Technology campus, and is the oldest, and arguably the most prestigious, chamber music competition in the country.  Contestants must be young (average age of the group must be less than 26) and are usually young professional or college musicians.  To be invited to this event is an honor, and all the major music schools are represented…Juilliard, Eastman, etc.  Each entry submits an audio tape or CD with samples of their performances.  Only a few of the best make the cut.  Last year, a young piano trio (violin, cello and piano) played the ravishingly romantic Trio No. 1 by the Russian composer, Anton Arensky.  The cellist was a tall, handsome young man, and the violinist was a beautiful young lady.  The first movement has a question-and-answer section between the violin and cello, and they played it in such an intimate…almost erotic…manner that I was sure the two were lovers.  It was a stunning performance.  I have heard the piece many times, but when I heard this performance, I finally understood what Arensky was trying to say in the music.  At the post-competition reception, I sought out the cellist and we had a conversation.  I didn’t have the chutzpah to come right out and ask him what I really wanted to know…but I told him how touched I was by their performance, how intimate it seemed.  He seemed to understand what I was asking, and he volunteered that it was “strictly business.”  How disappointing!  They did win a $4000 prize, though.  The judges must have been as taken with their performance as I was.

As I said earlier, orchestral works also have “speeches.”  Take Rimsky-Korsakoff’s wonderful piece, Scheherazade.  The story of Sinbad and the Tales of a Thousand and one Nights.  At one point in the second movement, the bassoon has a long soliloquy.  Given the instrument’s reedy quality, I always think of an old man telling a tale.  In fact, the movement is called “The Story of the Kalandar Prince.”  This is more explicitly “program music”…music written to accompany a story…than Brahms chamber music, so maybe Rimsky intended that bassoon solo, and the oboe solo that follows, to be musical representations of speech.

Berlioz, in his Symphonie Fantastique, went even further and assigned a short musical phrase called an idée fixe to represent an individual.  In this case it was the theme of the “beloved.”  Berlioz wrote this incredible work when he was young and wildly romantic.  He had seen a Shakespeare play with a famous English actress named Harriet Smithson, and he was immediately infatuated.  He wrote the Symphonie apparently as a kind of musical marriage proposal.  It worked, I guess, because they were married for awhile but eventually separated.  It is program music, telling the story of a young artist, hopelessly in love, who takes some opium and falls into a deep sleep with weird dreams.  He dreams of his beloved, that he sees her at a ball, that he kills her, is marched to the scaffold, beheaded, and sent off to Hades where he hears her beautiful idée fixe, only now it is horribly distorted, a mocking burlesque, ruined by his faithless love.  The Symphonie ends with a monstrous Witches Sabbath, kind of a cross between Hell and a Roman orgy, with mournful church bells tolling, the caricature of the idée fixe, rustlings and groans of the underworld, and the ancient Dies Irae theme booming out on a tuba over the top of all the glorious musical confusion.  When you realize that this piece was first performed in 1830, only three years after Beethoven’s death, it makes it all the more remarkable.  The audiences then were accustomed to the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  They must have been puzzled, maybe even outraged by it.  But what a conversation it is!

I grew up with classical music.  Piano lessons from age 7-14.  My mother was a very competent pianist.  I played band instruments in high school and college.  After about age 12, I hated the piano lessons, and my mother finally relented and let me quit when I was 14.  I wanted to play football.  Mostly, I hated Chopin.  My teacher assigned the Preludes, and to this day, I hate them, especially the ones I had to play.  Later in life, I rediscovered Chopin…not those awful Preludes, but the Ballades, Mazurkas, Waltzes, Nocturnes and Piano Concertos.  I have a collection of Chopin CD’s now, and that music really “talks” to me.  Chopin was a Romantic composer, but he was also a Polish patriot.  His music reverberates with nationalistic pride…and it is very, very romantic.  I think most Chopin is a conversation between the composer and the performer.  The audience can only observe from a distance this heart-to-heart discussion.  Some of it I cannot hear without tears in my eyes.  My great regret is that I never played a few of my favorites…the Waltz in A minor Op. 34 No. 2, the very famous and popular Waltz in C Sharp Minor Op. 64 No. 2 and any of the Ballades.  Of course, my meager skills would never have allowed me to even attempt the Ballades, but the A minor Waltz…oooh, I wish I could have played that!

Only a few pieces in my musical experience, from childhood to adulthood, have been “jaw droppers”…pieces that totally floored me the first time I heard them.  The first that I can recall was Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.  The next was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Both of those happened when I was in high school.  More recently, maybe thirty years ago, I saw a live performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.  Those of you who know these works will understand completely when I say that my first hearing of them was overwhelming.  Many other works have charmed or intrigued me…Haydn symphonies, Mozart and Beethoven quartets…Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, of course…the list goes on and on, and continues to grow.  I’m into Shostakovitch chamber music right now…oh, and Bartok…and…and…oh, I guess I got off the subject of musical conversations.  Sorry…

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