edition addiction

With manuscripts like these, no wonder there are so many different editions out there. (Manuscript for Beethoven's string quartet Op. 131.)

With manuscripts like these, no wonder there are so many different editions out there. (Manuscript for Beethoven’s string quartet Op. 131.)

One of my top expenses as a music student is, well, music. Buying scores can get so costly, and there are so many different editions out there to choose from! That’s why I asked my good friend Andrew (who is much more knowledgeable than I about these kinds of things) if he would write up an edition guide, to save the rest of us pianists from decision fatigue and undue worry about whether that one note in the third measure should be an A or a G. While he writes from a pianist’s perspective, I have no doubt that these guidelines will help other instrumentalists as well. Without further ado…

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“Wait, you need to suffer some more”

Alfred Brendel

This recent New York Times article by Vivien Schweitzer talks about the sacredness of certain composers and certain works–particularly the late, twilight-year compositions of Germanic composers such as Beethoven and Schubert–and the reverence with which most musicians approach them. Schweitzer compiles opinions from many famous musicians, both young and old, on how they deal with the question of being “ready”–emotionally, philosophically, mentally–to play any of these pieces that demand maturity and struggle. Some notable excerpts from the article:

“If I play a piece of Chopin or Schumann, it’s a one-to-one confession all the time, but with Beethoven, the slow movements are not so much a confession but more a kind of preaching. He has a bigger message about humanity. Earlier, I didn’t really understand and appreciate that expression.” – Leif Ove Andsnes

“In a case like Schubert, who died at 31, he had enough sorrow for a lifetime. There is something about the subtext of his music — people say you have to suffer a little more.” – Jeremy Denk

“I don’t take life for granted, and I don’t know if I will be alive in five years. As far as I know, no composer wrote on their score, ‘Forbidden to those under age 18.’” – HJ Lim

“On the one hand, Beethoven is unspeakably profound….On the other hand, there is not much gained about being too precious about it. The fact I decided to record the Beethoven sonatas doesn’t mean I won’t feel differently about them in 20 years. I knew I would go deeper if I was forced to record them.” – Jonathan Biss

I can definitely say for myself that I used to approach late works with a happy-go-lucky naivety, concerned more with surface musicality than profundity. Studying one of the last three Schubert sonatas in the past semester, though, has really opened my eyes. Many of the notes, harmonies, and melodies look straightforward and simple at first glance, but a surprising amount of struggle and depth of thought is required to express this highly nuanced, poetic music intelligently–yet organically. “The notes are easy, but the music is hard.”

What kind of music do you find difficult to approach because of its depth?

Related post: the bard of vienna

the bard of vienna

Top: title page of The Tempest from the First Folio, 1623. Bottom: first page of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 17 ("The Tempest"), 1802.

Top: title page of The Tempest from the First Folio, 1623.
Bottom: first page of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 (“The Tempest”), 1802.

This week I wanted to bring up interpretation, a subject that’s a little more abstract and subjective and possibly difficult. In studio class the other day, my teacher said, “Beethoven’s last piano sonatas are really like the last plays of Shakespeare.” This is something he’s said to me before, and the thought has been turning in my mind ever since. It’s challenging, slightly daunting, a call to action: to seek out a deeper level of meaning in the layout, the form, the markings of the score.

The commonalities between being an actor and being a musician are widely-recognized, but the acting that is most prominent in our everyday lives is a product of fickle Hollywood, where gems cohabit with meretricious glitter. The idea of going back to Shakespeare provides a much clearer example of how we can analyze and understand our own musical Urtexts. Shakespeare is a different level of script: unforgivingly complex and increasingly abstruse, with texts ossified through fame and time–and yet still hyper-saturated with all shades of human emotion.

This 1979 video of Sir Ian McKellen analyzing a speech from Macbeth shows just how much a great actor can derive from the most minute details of wording, phrasing, pauses and puns:

Similarly, as interpreters and partakers of music, we can struggle to find the questions that many of Beethoven’s late sonatas present, and then struggle to find the answers to those questions. They are experimental, unconventional, detailed, and bristling with wildly contrasting emotions and subitos and motivic connecting fibers. Understanding the meaning behind the markings and the form and the dynamic palette (and even microscopic details like the piece starting on the third scale degree rather than the first)–this is an often difficult task that can be made easier by taking a page from the actor’s book.

More reading/watching:

What do you try to do when interpreting a piece?