Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto no. 1 in B-flat minor, op. 73

In December 1874 Tchaikovsky completed his first piano concerto, having worked on it for a month and dedicated it to Nikolai Rubinstein, the finest pianist in Moscow. As Tchaikovsky was not a pianist, he wanted to make sure that nothing in the solo part would be technically ineffective or ungrateful or impractical. Naturally, although as he recalled later, with some misgivings, he asked Rubinstein to listen to it and give a soloist’s opinion.

On Christmas Eve, the two met in a classroom at the Moscow Conservatory. Tchaikovsky played through the first movement and Rubinstein didn’t utter a word. Deeply troubled at the silence, Tchaikovsky played the rest of the concerto. Again, Rubinstein said nothing until Tchaikovsky asked for a comment. He didn’t want an artistic verdict, only a pianist’s technical advice, but took the silence as indicating that Rubinstein disliked the concerto entirely.

When Rubinstein began to speak, his words confirmed the composer’s worst fears. The composition was trivial, with all the material stolen from here and there. The passagework was commonplace, unskillfully written, and unplayable. There might be two or three pages worth keeping, but it would be better to scrap the whole thing and start over.

Tchaikovsky felt treated like an untalented scribbler being raked over the coals for pestering a great man with rubbish. Deeply offended, he stormed out of the room without a word. Rubinstein followed  him and tried to make things better. He said that if Tchaikovsky rewrote it as he suggested, he would be happy to play it at one of his concerts. Still enraged, Tchaikovsky vowed to publish it without changing a single note.

He did make one change. He dedicated it to the German conductor and piano virtuoso Hans von Bülow. The two had never met, but Tchaikovsky had heard that Bülow greatly admired his work. Bülow, delighted with the new concerto and unexpected dedication, profusely thanked Tchaikovsky in a long letter and set off on a tour of North America. He premiered the concerto in Boston on October 25, 1875.

And Rubinstein? When he heard one of his students perform it, he changed his opinion and became its vigorous champion.

What’s in a number? (Schubert)

Franz Schubert. classical music trivia

Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert. Detail from a watercolor portrait (1825) by Wilhelm August Rieder. Public domain.

In an earlier post, I looked at the numbering of  Dvořák’s symphonies. He wrote nine, but chose to publish only five of them. A thematic catalog of 1955 included all nine and renumbered them. That numbering is now universally used, but it caused some confusion when it first appeared. Older publications and recordings with the old numbering system catch people off guard now.

Franz Schubert’s symphonies present similar problems. What is the correct numbering of his last two symphonies? It is important to remember that none of his symphonies appeared in his lifetime. The first critical edition of his works began to come out in 1884. The editors (including Eusebius Mandyczewski and Johannes Brahms) had discovered manuscripts of seven completed symphonies and two unfinished symphonies. The “Great C Major Symphony” was the first to be published, in 1840. As it was the last of his completed symphonies, that edition naturally called it no. 7.

In 1951, Otto Erich Deutch issued  his thematic catalog of Schubert’s works. By that time, one of the unfinished symphonies had become popular concert fare. It certainly had to be included in the numbering. Deutsch decided to count both of them in his enumeration. Since then, Schubert’s works have universally been known by the numbers he assigned, known, of course, as Deutsch numbers. In due time, a new complete edition, based on Deutsch’s work, appeared.

The first six symphonies need not concern us here. Deutsch simply added his number to the numbers already known from the Mandyczewski and Brahms edition. Schubert left his next two symphonies unfinished: one in E major (D. 729, which Deutch called no. 7) and one in B minor (D. 759, or no. 8). Last of all, the “Great C Major Symphony” (D. 944) had to be renumbered no. 9.

Most likely, when radio stations play the last two symphonies, they will probably use the numbers Deutch assigned. The B minor, known of course as the “Unfinished Symphony,” is no. 8 and the C major (called the “Great” in order to distinguish it from no. 6, also in C major) is no. 9. Don’t get too attached to that numbering.

In 1964, the International Schubert Society began to issue a new complete edition of Schubert’s works and chose to depart from Deutsch’s numbering of the symphonies. (Fortunately, they kept all of his thematic index numbers.) Schubert completed all of the work on the first two movements of the B minor symphony (D. 759) and left sketches for a  scherzo (third movement). The complete movements can be performed without the unfinished scherzo or the unbegun finale, and of course, they frequently are.

The one Deutch called no.7 presents problems. Schubert sketched four movements, but did not finish any of them. Moreover, he never quite solved some basic formal problems, which makes it impossible for anyone else to make a playable symphony from the sketches. Should it be counted among Schubert’s symphonies? The editors of the new edition decided it should not. Therefore, they renumbered the “Unfinished Symphony” no. 7 and the “Great C Major Symphony” no. 8.

In summary, three different Schubert symphonies have been known as no. 7: D. 729, D. 752, and D. 944. D.752 was first called no. 8,  but recently became no. 7. D. 944 started out as no. 7, then no. 9, but recently became no. 8. Clear?

I have seen no separate editions of Schubert’s symphonies that use the latest numbering published before 2002. Will it become standard, as the revised numbering of Dvořák’s symphonies did by the end of the 1960s? Hang on to your hats!

Beethoven explains his deafness

Visiting Bangkok, Thailand, my father slipped off a curb and broke his wrist. It seemed to him that a fall in an exotic location deserved a better story than mere carelessness. He tried to make something up about falling off an elephant, but never learned to tell it with a straight face. Beethoven must have had similar thoughts about his deafness; the story about gradual loss of hearing lacked entertainment value.

Beethoven told visiting English pianist Charles Neate that he had been working on an opera–not Fidelio–and had to deal with mean-tempered tenor. The tenor had already rejected two arias on a particular text, but appeared to be satisfied with the third one. Glad to be rid of him, Beethoven went back to work on other passages he had to set aside to please the tenor. Unfortunately, not half an hour later, the tenor knocked on his door again. According to what Beethoven told Neate, he flew into such a rage as the man entered the room that he threw himself on the floor. When he got up, he was totally deaf.

On another occasion, he told Ignaz Schuppanzig that he had caught his deafness. He always sketched outdoors. One day it started to rain, but he was so enrapt in his work that he didn’t notice until the paper became too wet to write on. From that time on, he was incurably deaf.

It appears that Beethoven managed to tell these stories with a straight face. Neate and Schuppanzig passed them on to others. The anecdotes appear in all seriousness in Alexander Thayer’s notes for his biography of Beethoven and the diary of George Smart.

Portrait of J. J. Johnson

n 1948, band leader Stan Kenton contemplated replacing all the slide trombones in his band with valve trombones. Under the influence of the new bebop style, all of the instruments had to play much faster than they had just a decade earlier. Kenton thought the slide trombone had become a jazz has-been that could never keep up.
He was probably unaware that a young trombonist named J. J. Johnson had already begun to demonstrate that the slide trombone could indeed keep up.

James Louis Johnson learned trombone as a school student in Indianapolis and played with such big bands as Illinois Jacquet, Benny Carter, and Count Basie. In the 1940s, swing band musicians gathered after gigs to keep playing informally. Bebop was born at these meetings.

Instead of winding down after a long evening of work, these sessions became highly competitive displays of improvisational virtuosity. Musicians attempted solos over complicated chord changes at breakneck speed. The earliest bop standouts included saxophonists, trumpeters, pianists, drummers, and, in short, everyone but trombonists. Then Dizzy Gilliespie heard J. J. Johnson in 1946 and introduced him to other boppers.

People who heard Johnson play only on the radio or on recordings assumed that he must have been playing a valve trombone. Surely no one could play that fast and that cleanly on a slide trombone. But Johnson did. He paved the way for numerous other slide trombonists to demonstrate their own virtuosity. No one has surpassed him yet in the breadth of his accomplishments or the reach of his influence.

After a brief hiatus from music in 1952-53, Johnson teamed with Kenton stand-out Kai Winding. For two years, “Jay and Kai” treated the musical world to the sound of two virtuoso slide trombonists playing at once.

Inevitably, Johnson and other boppers began to explore what else they could do besides play very fast. In Johnson’s case, he not only developed a more expressive approach to melody, but also turned increasingly to arranging and composing. In addition to original jazz works, he scored several movies and television shows.

After Johnson’s wife Vivian suffered a stroke in 1988, he canceled all of his commitments in order to take care of her during the last three years of her life. Upon his return to active music making, he dedicated his first recording, a set of ballads, to her memory. He resumed touring and recording from 1992 to 1996 and then retired for the last time. He continued to arrange and compose until he committed suicide in 2001. He left behind a tremendous legacy.

Here is at least one unique picture. In 1999, Chicago had its “Cows on Parade” art project, including one cow named “Music.” Probably lots of people took pictures of the cow, but I suspect I’m the only one who also took took a closeup of its portrait of J. J. Johnson.

What’s in a number (Dvořák)?

Some music has distinctive titles, like Romeo and Juliette or The Tree-Cornered Hat. More than one composer might use the same title, but so long as we specify whether we mean the Romeo and Juliette by Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev, or anyone else, there is no question of which piece we refer to.

Other music has form titles, like Sonata, Concerto, Symphony, etc. Not only have many composers used those titles over a long period of years, but many use them more than once. We keep them apart by numbering them, among other things. When we see or hear a reference to one of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, one of Brahms’ four, to name only two of many examples, we know exactly what piece is meant.

Not every sequence of numbers is that straightforward. The conductor of the orchestra I play in announced that he intended to play Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony on our next concert, but had second thoughts before the first rehearsal. He said he wanted to decide among that, Franck’s Symphony, and Dvořák’s Ninth. Everyone’s folder included parts for Dvořák symphonies number 2 and 5. Most of the orchestra was confused.

Antonin Dvořák composed five symphonies before he had any published. He issued one now known as his Sixth Symphony as his Symphony no. 1 and the present Seventh as no. 2. Before he wrote another symphony, he decided to publish one of the earlier ones (his Fifth) as no. 3, and so of course he published his last two symphonies as no. 4 and no. 5.

The thematic catalog of Dvořák’s complete works, now universally used as the definitive source of numbering and dating them, restored the four earlier, unpublished symphonies. After it appeared in 1955, it took a while for the new numbering to become accepted worldwide. Somehow it just didn’t seem right for the New World Symphony, known since its first publication as no. 5 to suddenly become no. 9. Now, it’s the older printed music and recordings that people find confusing.

The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi

Ottorino Respighi became what seemed unthinkable a hundred years ago: an Italian composer of orchestral music. He composed no successful operas at all.
Instead, he wrote the first significant Italian contributions to orchestral music since the Baroque era. He studied composition with the Russian Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Under his influence, and that of the French Impressionists and Richard Strauss, Respighi wrote some very successful symphonic tone poems, foreign in form, but  very Italian in subject matter.
The Pines of Rome (1924), the best known of them, is one of three tone poems that celebrate Rome–along with The Fountains of Rome (1918) and Roman Festivals (1929). It owns the distinction of being the first piece of live electronic music: Respighi wanted the sound of a nightingale and didn’t believe that any combination of instruments, or even a coloratura soprano, could achieve it. The score, therefore, includes a part for a phonograph recording of a nightingale in the third movement.

The work has four movements, played without pause. Resphighi provided the following program note in the score:

I. The Pines of the Villa Borghese (Allegretto vivace)

Children are playing in the pine groves of Villa Borghese. They dance in circles and march to mimic soldiers and battles. They are excited by their own cries and, like swallows at evening, they disappear in a swarm. Suddenly the scene changes and. . .

II. The Pines Near a Catacomb (Lento)

We see the shadows of pines crowning the entrance of a catacomb. The sound of mournful psalm singing rises from the depths, floating solemnly on the air, gradually and mysteriously dissipating.

III. The Pines of the Janiculum (Lento)

In the trembling air, the pines of Janiculum Hill stand, outlined distinctly in the light of a full moon. A nightingale sings.

IV. The Pines of the Appian Way (Tempo di Marcia)

In the misty dawn on the Appian Way, solitary pines guard the tragic country. Indistinctly, incessantly, we hear the rhythm of innumerable steps. The poet imagines a vision of ancient glory; at the sound of trumpets in the brilliance of the sunrise, a consular army bursts forth towards the sacred Way, triumphantly climbing to the Capitol.

Photo credit: AttributionSome rights reserved by Sakena

Budget cutting: follow-up to Joshua Bell post

I have just learned from another blog that the Monroe County school district (Bloomington, Indiana) has decided to eliminate the string program. Joshua Bell started playing violin in that program. Could one of the 150 elementary school students who can no longer learn string instruments in that school system have become as renowned an artist? No one will ever know, but it is certain that the move will deprive all of those children of the opportunity to learn to love great music by playing it, not to mention a possibility of a satisfying career (or at least life-long hobby) in music.

Elementary school music programs feed into junior high or middle school programs, which likewise feed high school programs. Bloomington, of course, is no ordinary city. It probably has more excellent music opportunities per capita than anywhere else in the country. Therefore, in this case, the decision to cut the string program also hampers the future growth of the Hoosier Youth Philharmonic.

In junior high school and high school, music performance groups are much larger than most classes. If a school orchestra has 45 members (probably a conservative estimate), it will require at least two other classes or study halls to make room for all of those students if it, too, falls to the budget axe. Students in a music program generally have better grades and fewer disciplinary problems than the school population as a whole.

So let’s see, the district cut a music program, thus disrupting a social and perhaps professional outlet for students, the future health of school and community music programs for older children, and possibly the children’s academic and social development. And the savings? $20,000 a year. I sure hope that’s someone’s typo. Even at a savings of $200,000, the school system will probably have to pay a heavier price down the road than it proposes to save in the short term.

Joshua Bell in the subway: what does it mean?

On January 12, 2007, Joshua Bell took his Stradivarius violin to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in Washington, D.C. and played great classical music for 43 minutes. According to the subsequent article in the Washington Post, more than one thousand people passed by. Only one person recognized him; only seven stopped to listen for even as much as a minute, but some people tossed money into his case as they hurried by. Bell collected just over $32.

The incident probably says a lot about American culture, but apparently no one agrees just what. Just the other day, it was retold on NPR’s “Morning Edition” as a story of how Americans are in too much of a hurry to stop and appreciate beauty.

I decided to look it up. Some folks at the time commented on how classical music is lost on the masses. Others claimed that the stunt simply showed that classical music is essentially irrelevant to modern society. Still others lamented that children wanted to stop and listen, but their parents wouldn’t let them.

The fact is that many people play music in public places and earn good money for it. It’s called busking. One successful New York busker noted that Bell is a great musician, but didn’t have any idea how to busk.

The story and its implications for classical music therefore are a bit more complicated than the Washington Post story implies. Surely the audience for classical music is small. It always has been in this country. On the other hand, it has always had an intense following. It still does. Joshua Bell is one of its big stars. Why then, did no one stop to hear him? Why did only one out of more than a thousand even recognize him?

As the busker said, a subway station is not a concert hall. No one has gone there deliberately to listen to music. A busker must work to attract an audience. Part of that work involves choosing spots to play where people are most likely to stop and listen. A subway platform, as noisy as it is, would have worked better. People standing and waiting for a train have no place to go. Once they get off the train and head for the street, they are in a hurry to get someplace.

Once in a suitable place, a busker must work to attract an audience. It’s not enough to put down a case and start playing without making some attempt to engage potential listeners. Bell, an excellent concert artist and inexperienced busker, did not do so.

That, and the fact that children wanted to stop and listen, sufficiently dismisses the argument classical music’s social irrelevance. Successful buskers can and do attract a paying audience playing classical music. Children, who have not yet learned to let someone else define their tastes for them, love to listen to it. There is nothing wrong with classical music.

As I have written in previous posts on the distinctions between popular and classical music, arguments about the relative merits of Beethoven and whomever else is more popular at the time (Henri Herz in the 1820s and 30s) have been going on since even before Beethoven died.

People all over the world pay good money to listen to Beethoven’s music. Who today but a scholar has ever heard of Herz? Where is a mass audience for any popular music more than fifty years old? Fifty years from now, who of today’s greatest stars will still be attracting an audience as big as Beethoven’s?

The Washington Post put Bell up to playing at the subway station more or less as a prank. The real lesson has nothing to do with how people are in a hurry to stop for beauty (although most Americans certainly seem to hurry past it all too routinely). Rather it has to do with what the busker pointed out about the difference between a concert hall and a subway platform.

Ever since Theodore Thomas took his orchestra on tour, classical musicians have worked hard to build an audience. One of his rivals invented music appreciation classes. The trouble with using either concert building or classroom experiences to “educate” the public is that it implies that the music is hard to understand and the people are somehow deficient in taste.

Neither message seems likely to produce more than sullen attention any more. And yet classical music, like Bell in the subway, sets up a concert venue and waits for people to show up. It gets the same small segment of society all the time. What can we do to attract an audience? To present music where they are in such a way they want to hear more of it? I’ll bet we can learn a lot from buskers.

Jeux by Claude Debussy

Debussy wrote his last ballet and last orchestral work, Jeux, (or Games for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, with Vaslav Nijinsky as choreographer and lead dancer. The first performance puzzled its audience, and as it took place only two weeks before the tumultuous premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, it was nearly forgotten in the uproar.

On closer inspection, Jeux was every bit as revolutionary and forward-looking as Sacre and even more daring harmonically. Debussy’s most nearly atonal work, Jeux‘s formal structure depends to an unprecedented degree on orchestral color and texture rather than pitch relationships.

In this way, it points in the direction of Anton Webern’s pointillism, to the search for new sonorities from electronic instruments, and through the teaching of Olivier Messiaen, to the techniques developed by postwar composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.

The story and choreography also refused to conform to any previous expectations, and it remains unclear whether the audience found the music or the ballet the more problematical.

In Nijinsky’s simple plot, boy loses tennis ball, finds two girls, forgets about the ball, and eventually wins both girls. By the end of the ballet, the three of them are kissing passionately. He made no room for fantasies, tutus and coronets, ensembles, or anything the audience might have expected to see–nothing but three people in tennis outfits.

(And in 1913, men’s tennis outfits were baggy long-sleeved shirts and flannel slacks. Women wore long-sleeved ankle-length dresses with petticoats. It is difficult to imagine anyone successfully either dancing or playing tennis dressed that way.)

Some people found the ballet a refreshing change. Others, apparently including Debussy himself, found it disconcerting. Debussy was so annoyed with what he saw that he left the theater to smoke a cigarette.

Even without the ballet, the music bewildered audiences. To some extent, it continues to do so. Unlike anything else he ever wrote, listeners continue to find Jeux Debussy’s most difficult work. With its predominantly scherzando mood, it continues to play games with audience’s expectations and requires repeated hearing to understand.

Beethoven plays a new concerto

Nowadays, soloists in a concerto play from memory, especially pianists. Occasionally, players of other instruments will use written music, but I have only seen one pianist using music. He was on the faculty when I was in graduate school, and students discussed the oddity for days afterward.

Since the piano requires the use of both hands, memorizing music for performances has the obvious benefit of not requiring a third hand to turn pages. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that pianists have not always performed from memory and audiences have not always expected them to.

For a performance of his C minor piano concerto, Beethoven asked his friend Ignaz Ritter von Seyfried to turn pages for him. Seyfried later reported that the pages contained mostly blank staves, with a few cryptic notes here and there that he compared to Egyptian hieroglyphics.

At the time of the performance, Beethoven had not yet had time to write out the solo part, so he played it from memory. He apparently didn’t want the audience to know that he had not prepared his own part, thus his request to Seyfried.

Beethoven gave a signal when to turn the pages. Poor nervous Seyfried stared at them as if the whole notation had been present but hard to read, much to Beethoven’s amusement.