passing out

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Calvin’s take on testing, by the inimitable Bill Watterson

Note: This post was edited on August 28, 2019 to fix/replace broken links.

Alternate title: acing those placement exams.

Congratulations! You made it past auditions, and now you get to be a fancy masters or doctoral student and live out all your fantasies of striding down the halls of the music building while wee undergrads swivel their heads in awe! Not so fast, though: there’s just one more hurdle to leap over. (As if those applications, pre-screenings, and auditions weren’t enough. But come on, if you wanted life to be easy, you wouldn’t be a musician.)

PLACEMENT EXAMS.

The theory and history placement exams nearly all incoming graduate students will have to take are just preliminary assessments to see where your theory/history level is at. So theoretically, you don’t have to study at all, particularly if (a) you’re a theory/history BAMF and could practically teach a class yourself, or (b) you’re happy to wither away, wasting hours of your life in remedial classes while your peers are practicing, performing, etc.

Neither of those options are for me! So, let’s study together! Yay! Here are some resources for your summer reviewing pleasure.

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schumann’s last years: part one

Robert Schumann, by Hetty Krist, 2010.

Listen to a piece by Schumann, and you will gain more insight into his complex, troubled, creative, affectionate soul. Unapologetically chromatic harmonies; achingly gorgeous inner melodies; eerie, disorienting rhythmic displacements; obsessive motivic repetition and development–these are the elements so distinctive to his personal style (not to mention the quotations from other composers and the different versions of Clara’s name, encoded, that pop up every so often).

And out of all the lives of the great composers, Schumann’s is perhaps the most heartbreaking because of his last two years, which were a tragic spiral into the dark abyss of mental illness. The little paragraph your history textbook devotes to the end of his life is most likely cold and clinical, and probably goes something like this: “Schumann’s mental health began to deteriorate near the end of his life, and he was institutionalized in 1854 after a failed suicide attempt. He died two years later, in 1856.” What your textbook will probably leave out, for the sake of brevity, is that the voices in Schumann’s mind had begun to take a dark and demonic turn; that he was terrified that he would hurt his seven children, or Clara, who was pregnant with the eighth; that Schumann’s whole community–composed of musical greats like Joseph Joachim and Johannes Brahms–was in shock after Schumann jumped off that bridge, and was scrambling to protect Clara from the awful truth. Eyewitness accounts from the time, recorded in letters and diaries, brings everyone back to life in painfully vivid clarity.

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music worth a thousand words

At mid-day on the 15th a letter came from the doctor with enclosures. I handed it to Frau Schumann in fear and trembling!  Were her leters being returned or was it a reply? She opened the letter, and could hardly stammer, "from my husband"; she could not read it for some time. And then, what unspeakable joy; she looked like the Finale to Fidelio, the F major movement in 3/4 time. I can describe it in no other way. One could not weep over it, but it fills one with a deep and joyful awe.

Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Joseph Joachim on September 17, 1854, after Robert Schumann’s institutionalization.

And the F major movement in question:

O Gott! O welch’ ein Augenblick!
O unaussprechlich süßes Glück!
Gerecht, O Gott, ist dein Gericht!
Du prüfest, du verläßt uns nicht.
O God! O what a moment!
O inexpressibly sweet happiness!
Righteous, O God, is Thy judgement!
Thou dost try, but not forsake us.

Sources:

notes from the past: the letters between robert and clara

robertclaraschumann

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: the letters between robert and clara

robertclaraschumann“I’ve just received some letters from Vienna regarding Liszt. He caused a stir as Vienna has never known. He is truly an artist whom one must see and hear for oneself. I regret that you won’t meet him because you two would really get along well. He likes you very much. He ranks your compositions far above Henselt’s, above everything that he knows in our time. I played your Carnaval for him (I also played it for Ms. Cavalcabo); he’s delighted with it. ‘He’s a genius,’ he said; ‘that’s one of the greatest works I know.’ You can imagine my joy.”

“Once again I survived playing at the theater. The applause was as usual, but my playing seemed so bland and so–I don’t know how to put it–that I almost lost interest in continuing with my tour. Ever since I heard and saw Liszt’s bravura, I feel like a beginner. Maybe my courage will return again–I hope it’s just a passing melancholy which I often have. I know it’s not right to be so dissatisfied, but I can’t help it. The only thought that can cheer me is to live as an amateur pianist later, to give a few lessons, and not to play in public anymore. You’ll always love me, my Robert, won’t you?”

– Clara Wieck, to Robert Schumann, April 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: the letters between robert and clara

robertclaraschumann“One might think you were very pale or even somewhat sickly, based on the painting [of you]. You aren’t, are you? But as I said, I’d like you to put on some weight, and I want to tell you how to do that–you have to be very cheerful, drink an occasional glass of Bavarian beer, and you must not play anything by Bellini and Chopin, and only amusing and funny pieces by your beloved. By the way, remain just as you are if you want (I already wrote you that)–you please me, truly you do–I imagine my future wife to be just like you–do you hear?” – Robert Schumann, to Clara Wieck, April 1838

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

composers as you’ve never seen them before

We’re all familiar with the faces behind the music–music history books, program notes, and even the walls of music libraries and teachers’ studios are inundated with portraits of the greats. Without them we would be logging hours in a cubicle rather than a practice room, or sketching diagrams that didn’t include the terms “recapitulation” or “pitch set” or “inversion,” or counting change at a cash register instead of counting rests at a music stand (insert joke about how musicians can’t count past 4). Most of these portraits are weighty and austere and portray the composer reverently: Shostakovich at the piano, the clean, crisp shades of black and white highlighting the dark frames of his glasses and the stern, knifelike line of his mouth. His head rests in his hand, the quintessential intellectual pose (aka “My brain is too heavy for my neck to hold up all the time”). Or Chopin as portrayed by Delacroix in thick, rich brushstrokes–we, the viewers, gaze up at him from below as if aware of our inferiority in the presence of such a man. His gaze, on the other hand, is inscrutable and distant under elegantly furrowed brows, a mixture of both “tortured artist” and “visionary genius.”

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notes from the past: the letters between robert and clara

robertclaraschumann“Sometimes (but only very rarely) I’m overcome with a terrible fear that with all the honors which you will receive as an artist, you will forget the poor, simple artist who cannot adorn you with titles and can offer nothing but his love. But when I consider the depth of your heart, the truthfulness of your entire being and your character, too, which has always been so firm and honorable, I feel so happy and secure that I’m ashamed of my little fear….Clara, if only I could tell you how happy your love makes me; it fills me so completely that there isn’t any part of my whole being that doesn’t quiver with it. But then language and sounds become incomprehensible; I see only two figures embracing, and everything around me fades away. You’re my dear Clara.” – Robert Schumann, to Clara Wieck, February 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: the letters between robert and clara

robertclaraschumann

(This snippet is interesting not only because of how it adds more depth of detail to the relationship between Robert and Clara, but also because it reminds us what a prestigious performer Clara Schumann was, a fact which is often overlooked/understated.)

“I gave my fourth concert this afternoon, and I played pieces by Liszt and Thalberg to silence those that thought I couldn’t play Thalberg. There were 13 curtain calls, and not even Thalberg experienced that. It was probably because the people in the audience were generally indignant about an article claiming that I didn’t know how to play Beethoven, a rumor started by Mr. Holz, Beethoven’s former shoeshine-boy. You can imagine the hubbub; just wait and see what will happen to him–he offended all who are knowledgeable about music and the entire audiences. You probably won’t understand the public’s enthusiasm here, since you don’t know what I’m accomplishing and since you don’t know me well enough as an artist. But don’t think I am angry with you for this; on the contrary, I am happy to know that you don’t love me because of my talent, but, as you once wrote on a little piece of paper, ‘I don’t love you because you are a great artist; no, I love you, because you are so kind.’ That pleased me immensely, and I have never forgotten it.” – Clara Wieck, to Robert Schumann, January 1838

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