Sunday, January 24, 2010

What’s Up?

Long time no see.  I’ve been around, and engaged, but the blogging bug seems to be just a flicker nowadays.  Part of it was the Christmas vacation.  I was off work for seventeen straight days and never once felt like blogging.  I was busy doing other things: spending time with family, listening to music, and watching movies - I must have watched 20+ movies during the month of December.  Also, I read no books during the vacation (!) a period when I usually go through three or four. 

So what’s up?  Well, most importantly, it appears that Barack Obama is now a spent political force.  The man who a year ago was hailed as The Messiah, “a sort of God,” “the word made flesh,” and who had commanding majorities in both houses of Congress now has little political influence.  He over-read his mandate and overreached and now his agenda is toxic not only to a majority of voters but also to many in his own party.  Dick Morris said the other day that Obama will never get another major piece of legislation passed and I agree with that with a modification: he’ll never get a major piece of left-wing legislation passed.  Obama can still survive politically but only if he moves to the center.  The problem is he may not be capable or interested in doing so – the man appears to have too much ego to compromise with the other side, and he is too true believer, too much a dyed-in-the-wool leftist.  His answers during a town hall appearance in Ohio the other day seem to confirm that the election of Scott Brown (and Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie) taught him nothing.  He still seems to think he can continue on the path he and his advisors set out on a year ago.  That’s what happens when you live in an echo chamber filled with yes-men and sycophants - it becomes harder to get a grasp on reality.  But the reality is that the liberal dream is over.  Thank God (and Scott Brown) for that.

Enough politics.  One of the movies we watched recently was Julie and Julia, which tells the stories of Julia Child’s beginnings as a chef in France, and Julie Powell’s attempt to cook (and blog about) each recipe in Ms. Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a single year.  The movie was so-so.  But it gave me an idea, which I mentioned back in a December post: to learn one new piece of classical music per week.  (As I’ve mentioned before, I have trouble using the term “classical music” because “classical” actually refers to a period of concert music, the period roughly between Bach’s death in 1750 and Beethoven’s Third Symphony in 1805, the period dominated by Haydn and Mozart.  But since most people understand the term as meaning a certain type of orchestral music no matter when it was written, I’ll use it here in that context.)  And how am I doing with my plan?  I’m pleased to say so far, so good.  At this point I can say I’m familiar with the following new music:

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto In E Minor, Op. 64

Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture

Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture

Mendelssohn’s String Octet In E Flat, Op. 20

Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto In A, K 622

Schubert’s String Quartet No.13 in A, D. 804

Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in d, D. 810, “Death and the Maiden”

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto In D, Op. 35

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 In B Flat Minor, Op. 23

Bruch’s Violin Concerto #1 In G Minor, Op. 26

Elgar’s Cello Concerto In E Minor, Op. 85

I realized early on that I couldn’t simply listen to one piece of music per week, then only listen to another piece the next week, and so on.  I had to mix them up, listening to what I felt like listening to at the time.  So my plan has changed to learning 50 new pieces of classical music during the coming year.  And what do I mean by learn?  Well, to recognize it immediately upon hearing it is one yard stick, but more than that I want to really know the music as I know, for instance, much of Beethoven or Bach’s music.  I want to know what form the music is in: for example, if the first movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is in sonata form (which it is) I want to know when we are in the exposition, when we move on to the development section, when the 6/4 chord is coming to introduce the cadenza, when we move on to the recapitulation, etc.  Similarly, I want to recognize if a movement is a Theme and Variations, a Rondo, a Minuet, a Scherzo, etc.  Now this is fairly simple with Haydn or Mozart because they developed and perfected these forms during the classical era and they held to them fairly strictly.  Beethoven, of course, exploded all that, using the forms in a much looser manner, expanding and altering them for his own expressive needs.  Beethoven freed composers from the strict adherence to these forms forever, so much so that, post-Beethoven, it was considered lacking in imagination if one were to simply state one’s themes, develop them, restate them, put a coda on the end, and be done with it.  Composers during the romantic era which Beethoven initiated were compelled to use these forms in new and original ways in order to express their own personal visions.  Now, this was both good and bad in terms of the music being produced, a subject which I’ll take up another time.  But in terms of learning new music it almost always makes it harder to know where you’re at in a piece.  Another thing that makes it harder is to listen to a music by a composer who lacks the melodic gift.  If the stated themes are not instantly memorable melodies it again makes it harder to follow a piece.  Now with some of the music I’m listening to right now this is not a problem as Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky may be the three most talented writer’s of melody of the nineteenth century.  With someone like Rachmaninov, whose much-loved Piano Concerto #2 I’m trying to learn, it is much more difficult because often, as lovely as it is, the music sounds like one long development section: much instability and dissonance, few closed cadences among the melodic lines.  I have a feeling that with much late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century music I’ll be simply sitting back and enjoying what I can but not really understanding it much. 

Once the Christmas vacation ended and I got back to the normal rhythms of life the urge to read returned.  In keeping with my 2010 musical plan, I first read The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, by Eric Siblin, which received rave reviews over at Amazon.  Unfortunately, while Bach’s Cello Suites are sublime, this book is not.  It’s not a bad book by any means and I’m glad I read it.  It tells the life stories of Bach and Casals in relation to the cello suites, along with the story of the authors discovery of the suites and subsequent research into them.  There are six suites each made up of six movements so Siblin structured his book into six parts of six chapters, each with the title of a suite and a movement, an overly cute device in my book.  As for the subject matter, it was interesting up to a point but since I knew the main facts of Bach’s life there was little new there for me.  I knew nothing of Casals so almost all of his story was new to me.  But while I get the fact that Casals was responsible for (re)introducing the forgotten Cello Suites to the public during the early twentieth century it seemed to me that for much of the book that the author was straining to link Bach, Casals, and himself to the suites.  Bach’s catalog runs over 1000 pieces, and while the suites are wonderful so too is nearly all of what Bach wrote.  He seems to have penned them and never given them a second thought.  Casals is rightly associated with the suites but he also covered nearly every important piece of cello music in the repertoire; his life was not all about the cello suites though at times the author makes it seem that way.  In a way the part of the book I enjoyed most was Siblin’s own efforts to learn about the suites.  His story of a lover of rock and roll music (he’d been rock critic prior to writing this book) who became disillusioned with it and went off searching for something else is one I can understand.  I’ve been there.  That we both ended up at Bach and classical music was the original reason I picked up the book.  Again, it’s not a bad book.  There’s no crime in concentrating only on the cello suites. I simply felt the cello suites hook was overstated.  If you find the subject matter interesting at all you you’ll probably enjoy this book. 

I am now on the a book that I am reveling in, Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood.  Lockwood seems to have solved the problem of how to write about instrumental music.  His descriptions of Beethoven’s music are wonderfully descriptive and a real asset to learning and understanding Beethoven’s music.  I’m only 100+ pages into it but I’m loving it.  And now I’m going to get back to it.