happy birthday, martha

Sugar and spice and metronome-breaking tempi. Happy birthday, Martha!

“Argerich brings to bear qualities that are seldom contained in one person: she is a pianist of brainteasing technical agility; she is a charismatic woman with an enigmatic reputation; she is an unaffected interpreter whose native language is music. This last may be the quality that sets her apart. A lot of pianists play huge double octaves; a lot of pianists photograph well. But few have the unerring naturalness of phrasing that allows them to embody the music rather than interpret it.”
– Alex Ross, “Madame X: Martha Argerich,” The New Yorker (Nov. 2001)

“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

on art, by van gogh

“I’ve attacked that old giant of a pollard willow, and I believe it has turned out the best of the watercolours. A sombre landscape — that dead tree beside a stagnant pond covered in duckweed, in the distance a Rijnspoor depot where railway lines cross, smoke-blackened buildings — also green meadows, a cinder road and a sky in which the clouds are racing, grey with an occasional gleaming white edge, and a depth of blue where the clouds tear apart for a moment. In short, I wanted to make it like how I imagine the signalman with his smock and red flag must see and feel it when he thinks: how gloomy it is today.” – Vincent Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo, July 1882 [source]

An excerpt from journalist Brenda Ueland’s 1939 book, If You Want to Write, on the nature and motivation of art:

When Van Gogh was a young man in his early twenties, he was in London studying to be a clergyman. He had no thought of being an artist at all. He sat in his cheap little room writing a letter to his younger brother in Holland, whom he loved very much. He looked out his window at a watery twilight, a thin lampost, a star, and he said in his letter something like this: “It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks.” And then on his cheap ruled note paper, he made the most beautiful, tender, little drawing of it.

When I read this letter of Van Gogh’s it comforted me very much and seemed to throw clear light on the whole road of Art. Before, I had thought that to produce a work of painting or literature, you scowled and thought long and ponderously and weighed everything solemnly and learned everything that all artists had ever done aforetime, and what their influences and schools were, and you were extremely careful about design and balance and getting interesting planes into your painting, and avoided, with the most stringent severity, showing the faintest academical tendency, and were strictly modern. And so on and on.

But the moment I read Van Gogh’s letter I knew what art was, and the creative impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others, by drawing it.

The difference between Van Gogh and you and me is, that while we may look at the sky and think it is beautiful, we don’t go so far as to show someone else how it looks. One reason may be that we do not care enough about the sky or for other people. But most often I think it is because we have been discouraged into thinking what we feel about the sky is not important.

And Van Gogh’s little drawing on the cheap note paper was a work of art because he loved the sky and the frail lamppost against it so seriously that he made the drawing with the most exquisite conscientiousness he could. You and I might have made the drawing and scratched it off roughly. Well, that would have been a good thing to do too. But Van Gogh made the drawing with seriousness and truth.

This is what Van Gogh wrote about people like all of us, whose creative impulse is confused (and not simple as his was) and mixed up with all sorts of things such as the wish to make an impression (not just to tell the truth) and to do what critics say artists should do and so on:

He said:

When I see young painters compose and draw from memory, and then haphazardly smear on whatever they like also from memory—then keep it at a distance and put on a very mysterious, gloomy face to find out what in Heavens’ name it may look like and at last finally make something from it, always from memory—it sometimes disgusts me, and makes me think it all very tedious and dull.

They cannot understand that the figure of a laborer—some furrows in a plowed field, a bit of sand, sea and sky—are serious objects, so difficult but at the same time so beautiful, that it is indeed worthwhile to devote one’s life to the task of expressing the poetry hidden in them.

“lose yourself”

By Hugo Boettinger, 1907 (source)

A great excerpt that emphasizes the importance of “forgetting yourself,” particularly in collaborative playing, and thinking as a group.

It is egoless listening that tunes you to the music. The same quality of listening applies when playing with a group. Fear-based listening is trying to play with others while being preoccupied with yourself. One of my students said that his self-consciousness got in the way of listening to others while he was playing. He found himself listening and trying to respond. That’s partially right. You want to listen and respond, but you can’t plan your response or you’ll lose the moment: that precious connection with true self. This same person said that once, when he was playing with a group, he kept repeating to himself like a mantra, “Don’t think, listen…Don’t think, listen…” He realized that he was so busy saying, “Don’t think, listen,” that he wasn’t listening. That is called trying not to try and it is one of the follies of an intrusive mind. In the book, The Music of Santeria, Traditional Rhythms of the Bata Drums, by John Amira and Steven Cornelius, the authors point out the nature of listening: “In the early stages of learning it is not uncommon to lose track of the very sounds that one creates on his own drum amongst the broader sounds of the ensemble. While disconcerting at first, this may also be a positive sign, for it suggests that one’s ears are experiencing and assimilating the totality of the ensemble rather than being locked onto a single musical line.”

– Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within (New Albany: Jamey Aebersold Jazz, 1996).

What is something you do personally, when playing with others, to help you tune into that group consciousness?

notes from the past: the letters between robert and clara


A reminder of how even the greatest artists struggle with insecurities:

“The theater paper in Dresden recently wrote that my concert there was pretty much sold out–how shocking! And as far as improvising is concerned, I can take Willmers on any time. I’m scared to death about my trip to Paris; when I hear someone like Thalberg or Liszt, I always feel so insignificant, and I’m so dissatisfied with myself I could cry! If I had enough strength and could pull myself together, then I could accomplish much more, but I am too much in love; I simply can’t live for my music alone as Father wants; I can love music only through you, and that’s why I often have other things on my mind–you know what I am trying to say.” – Clara Wieck, to Robert Schumann, December 1838

Source: The Complete Correspondence of Clara and Robert Schumann, edited by Eva Weissweiler (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1994).

notes from the past: composers on composers

Eugene de Blaas, “The Friendly Gossips” (1901)


On Mozart: “My friends often flatter me about my talent, but he was far above me.”


On Liszt: “Liszt left me last night. One illusion after the other is vanishing as I go through life ; that pains me, not because I become more and more solitary, but because it makes one sad to regard with pity the things one used to look up to with awe and reverence and hardly dare to criticise. With his gifts of heart and mind Liszt might spread happiness around him — and in
spite of this he requires the most complicated machinery to hide from himself that he is, indeed, unhappy owing to his confusion of mind. There is a tendency to restlessness in his every action that has something unholy about it, in spite of all his moral aims. If only I could heal him!” (In a letter to Gisela von Arnim, June 1854)

Continue reading