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Domenico in the Heart

I probably started working on this post 7or 8 years ago, as a response to Ralph Kirkpatrick’s Domenico Scarlatti, and abandoned it after becoming lost in a sea of notes on more recent scholarship. Much of the labor to “finish” it involved shaping, collating, and editing the post-Kirkpatrick material. After a lot of upstream swimming trying to get the newer material to work with the older, I realized (would that I had sooner!) that the form of the original—the response to a single text—too strongly resisted any attempt to morph it into a synthesis, and as such it made more sense to present the work in discrete sections. What follows, then, is a single post composed of two strata: the first is an edited version of the original draft (with a new section on dance, and a new conclusion, mostly cobbled together from the old materials); the second, almost twice the length of the original, and keyed to it via alphabetized endnotes, comments on and updates the Kirkpatrick. When I described this structure to my partner, she suggested the two sections might be imagined as working in counterpoint. Alas, that is a bit too charitable. Given the total length, you are more than welcome, reader, to consider it the Pit Stop’s greatest folly yet: Helldriver’s Heaven’s Gate, if you will. (And you will. Fastway said so.) And yet, even if I have lost my way along the road to the palace of wisdom—even if Xanadu proves to be a tomb—it was a folly that had to be seen to its ultimate conclusion, in order for the remainder of the work of this blog to get done, and its endlessly-receding end to be reached.


 In search of the Spanish Scarlatti, the true Scarlatti, or, for that matter, ANY Scarlatti at all.

 Quasi una fantasia, por favore

In 1991, after being accepted to the University of Utah for graduate work in English, I deferred for a year, took half of it to work and save money, and in February of ’92 lit out for Spain. I spent most of my remaining six months in Madrid, teaching English, and taking day and weekend trips around Castile y Leon and La Mancha. One rainy weekend in March, I toured El Escorial, the great gloomy old monastery about an hour east of the city, and then hiked up into the hills, until I found an overlook and a comfortable rock to sit on. There, I popped a cassette into my Walkman and listened to three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.

The Scarlatti was filler at the end of one of maybe a dozen cassettes, to which I had devoted one side pocket of the travel backpack I had bought at Bill’s, the local Army-Navy surplus a week or so before going abroad. (The other side pocket was for underwear and socks.) Prog, metal, grunge, Hendrix, classical. I know that one had Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste on one side, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote on the other. I know this because I had been dividing my days into Bartók days—the dark, cold, wet, lonely days of the Madrid winter—and Scarlatti days: those gem-cut days flooded with the light of a rapidly-approaching spring. This is the Spanish light Ralph Kirkpatrick decribes so admirably in his classic study of the composer: “the hard, brilliant, blinding light of Velazquez and of Goya’s tapestry cartoons, a light that emphasizes less form, as in Italy, than space, the surrounding spaces of the Castilian plain” (92).

Spain became less Bartók and more Scarlatti the longer I stayed, as the seasons changed and I settled in and made friends and started spending my afternoons at pools and playing pickup soccer and the long Madrid evenings in its perpetually-bustling cafes. Looking down on El Escorial and the surrounding hills some time in early March, though, I was still caught between homesickness and a budding romance with all things Spanish. I’m pretty sure I knew that Scarlatti had lived in Spain, and had served a Spanish Queen, Maria Barbara—Kirkpatrick calls Scarlatti her “musical dowry”—as Scarlatti had previously served her father, the Portuguese King Joao V, in the idyllic (at least from a few centuries’ distance, and to a young writer) post of music instructor to the royal family. What I’m sure I did not know was that Scarlatti went on a seasonal calvary in tow of said family. Every autumn they stayed—first Felipe and Isabel, and then Maria Barbara and Fernando—much to their displeasure, but in deference to custom, where the bones of the Spanish kings lay: the very El Escorial I looked down upon. And so, for all I knew, Domenico himself might have sat upon my rock, dreaming up the endlessly inventive music I listened to three and a half centuries later.

I couldn’t hear the Spanish in Scarlatti then. I didn’t know Spanish music at all, outside Paco de Lucia’s forays into fusion, which I also could not yet hear in the context of Spanish music. But perhaps it was the Spanishness of Scarlatti that captured me, and that has held me ever since, Spain being the country in which I have spent the most time abroad, and Scarlatti the eighteenth-century composer with whom I have always felt the deepest connection.

 “La que sigue se debe tañer primero”

Twenty years and two extended Spanish sojourns later, on an Amtrak to Louisville, I finally got around to reading Kirkpatrick’s Domenico Scarlatti, first published in 1953. Kirkpatrick’s was a name was familiar to me from the “K.” next to the Scarlatti sonatas: he catalogued 555 of them, correcting and revising the Longo edition of 1906-8, and selecting and editing 60 sonatas for publication. The book itself is part biography, part analysis, and part discussion of Scarlatti in performance (Kirkpatrick himself was an eminent harpsichordist).

My immediate reaction to the biographical section of Kirkpatrick’s study was how much it spoke to the challenge of writing about music per se. So little is known about Scarlatti’s life that Kirkpatrick had little choice but to write aroundhis subject. Unlike Domenico’s father Alessandro, who lived a rich public life, Domenico never gave a single public performance. Scarlatti’s time in Portugal and Spain, where he lived with the royal families from 1722 until his death in 1757, is particularly bereft of documentation: there is no correspondence, and little mention of Domenico by his contemporaries. Nor is there a single surviving autograph of the keyboard works, rather only those of the Queen’s copyists, and subsequent copies. As Kirkpatrick seethes, Scarlatti’s descendants “allow[ed] all of his musical manuscripts to disappear,” while “jealously preserv[ing] the records of [the family’s] honorary nobility” (100). Even the painting after which the two known lithographs of Scarlatti were made had disappeared, making it impossible to authenticate them. (The portrait was rediscovered in 1956.) No one even knows where the body is buried.

Writes Kirkpatrick: “Domenico Scarlatti’s private sentiments, other than those expressed in his music, remain completely unknown to us throughout his entire life. No letters or anecdotes survived to give us more than a pale indication of his personality, and the years of his youth and early manhood pass with a particularly mysterious anonymity. Of Domenico’s adventures, attractions, and involvements in the forty-two years preceding his marriage we know absolutely nothing” (19). Scarlatti the man is thus a historical cipher who can only be assembled via his music. Reading the biography section of Kirkpatrick’s study is a bit like looking at a landscape painting with a Magritte-ish silhouette of a human figure in the foreground, speckled with notes.A

Given all of this, it is almost too perfect that the queen’s best harpsichords and the manuscripts of Scarlatti’s sonatas should have fallen into the possession of Domenico’s friend and fellow beneficiary, the great castrato Farinelli: from the keeper of the phallus to the mad king’s favorite eunuch, it is the sort of metonymic jump that makes of history a fantasy based on a theme by Derrida. (It gets even better: Late in his life, the king, madder by the year, would grotesquely imitate Farinelli’s singing: royal authority is “restored” … in the form of a poor imitation of a eunuch!) And so Kirkpatrick’s biography spins around that missing member, the absent center. Mimicking the sonatas’ love of ornament, here the man, the life, become an ornament of the music. And not just the man: the royal family itself, the king and queen Scarlatti faithfully served, become ornaments of Scarlatti’s musical legacy, the displaced center—the copies of the copies of the 555 sonatas. Spain, it was remarked at the time, “was being ruled by musicians and the Portuguese” (Kirkpatrick 109). Is it not fitting that the artists should be remembered, their royal patrons forgotten?B

Kirkpatrick is well aware of the twin problems here—that is, both the problem of writing a biography of a man about whom there is almost no historical record, and of writing about a medium for which words always seem inadequate. He has an easier time reconciling himself to the former problem than to the latter. “I realized that what I have written about a piece distorts or limits what as a performer I feel its content to be” (vii), Kirkpatrick frets in his preface—this despite some really marvelous tilting at the windmills of Scarlatti’s sound throughout the book. Whatever the performer or teacher suggests “to heighten a sense of the character of a piece … must be forgotten in favor of the real music. When perpetuated on paper they become sad and dangerously misleading caricatures”; the sonatas “ridicule translation into words.” Kirkpatrick the musician wishes he could use words the way he uses his fingers on the keys. Kirkpatrick the writer, however, understands that distortion and limitation are the essence of his medium.

And yet, words are only really distortion and limitation when considered against that something which cannot be grasped. So let us give to language, as to music, the autonomy it so richly deserves, rather than make it the subject of some ostensible “outside” object whose patronage it requires. The words will be remembered, the patrons forgotten. The manuscripts, and the harpsichords, will never find their way back to the king. Or Farinelli. Or anybody.

As the ParmaC manuscript notes about the copying of the K. 516 and 517 sonatas in the wrong order, “La que sigue se debe tañer primero” (the one that follows should be played first). Indeed, the score is never the music. The words on the page are never the notes. Or, for that matter, the life.D

The Ceilings of the Alcázar

In order to fill in, or at least supplement, how little is known about Scarlatti’s life—in order, that is, to generate 150 pages of biography—Kirkpatrick turns to history—the landscape in the painting—and speculates about the relationship between the composer and his place and time. Spain, Kirkpatrick asserts, “has always had a pronounced effect on foreigners; it both fascinates and unsettles them … For some it is a stimulant; for others it is utter destruction” (81). It was in Spain, where he lived most of his adult life, that Scarlatti “rediscover[ed] certain eastern strains of his Sicilian ancestry and the Saracen traces that had remained in the surroundings of his early childhood” (67), and where he encountered the “violent rhythms” of Iberian music.

“It is by no means difficult to imagine”—beware the giant hedge!—“D.S. strolling under the Moorish arcades of the Alcázar or listening at night in the streets of Seville to the intoxicating rhythms of the castanets and the half oriental melodies of Andalusian chant … As he listened to Spanish popular music and ‘imitated the melody of tunes sungs by carriers, muleteers, and common people,’ his real destiny was unfolding. Thenceforth Scarlatti was to become a Spanish musician” (82; the interpolated quote is from Charles A. Burney, from The Present State of Music in Germany, 1773; Kirkpatrick draws on Burney’s works both liberally and skeptically). Elsewhere, Kirkpatrick compares the ornament of the sonatas to “the Moorish ceilings of the Alcázar” and the “elaborate surface decorations” of Sevillian architecture (87).E

“There is hardly an aspect of Spanish life,” he continues—you get the point by now, but you can also see how beautifully Kirkpatrick writes—“of Spanish popular music and dance, that has not found itself a place in the microcosm that Scarlatti created with his sonatas. No Spanish composer, not even Manuel de Falla, has expressed the essence of his native land as completely as did the foreigner Scarlatti. He has captured the click of castanets, the strumming of guitars, the thud of muffled drums, the harsh bitter wail of gypsy lament, the overwhelming gaiety of the village band, and above all the wiry tension of the Spanish dance” (114-5).

These passages call to mind a line of Gibbon’s, which I actually know through an early essay of Jorge Luis Borges’s called “The Argentinian Writer and Tradition” (from 1932’s Discusión, it is actually a transcribed lecture): “I believe that if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, the absence of camels would be enough to prove that it is Arabic” (qtd. in Borges 103; my translation [!]). It would be like a New Yorker pointing at yellow cabs and tall buildings. Only foreigners see cabs, or camels; and possibly only foreigners see “Spain” as it is commonly, and now globally, understood: flamenco-fiesta-guitarra-cerveza. Or, if you prefer, here is the mierda on the label of a bottle of wine that once sat on my kitchen table, “Tempra Tantrum”: “Go ahead and throw a Tempra Tantrum tonight by drinking in the passion, flavor, style and emotion that embodies [sic] modern Spain.”

I confess I don’t hear “the bitter wail of gypsy lament” or “the click of castanets.” That is what I hear in other, inferior composers (at least in terms of their “Spanish” compositions; e.g., I adore Ravel, but dislike his “Spanish Rhapsody”). Classical music that simply tries to reproduce the folk idiom, to display it like an artifact in a glass-doored cabinet, sounds artificial and impoverished. Like Ravel, Scarlatti was a foreigner; but what is remarkable about his music is the level at which he incorporates the Spanish idiom. Like Bartók’s, Scarlatti’s music does not have to be openly imitative of surface features in order to be (in his case) “Spanish.” Perhaps Scarlatti struck a perfect balance: he heard Spanish music neither as a native nor as a tourist; like the relationship of any artist to their art, Spain was at once him and not-him. At one point at least, Kirkpatrick seems to realize he has gone too far, and recuperates himself admirably: “All of this does not find expression merely in loosely-knit impressionistic program music, but is assimilated and distilled with all the rigor that Scarlatti had learned from his sixteenth-century ecclesiastical masters, and is given forth again in a pure musical language that extends far beyond the domain of mere harpsichord virtuosity” (115; my emphasis). Aye, there’s the rub, and a good indication that Kirkpatrick understands the limits of his own impressionistic musings on Scarlatti-in-the-landscape.F

All of this to say that, while it may be interesting and even instructive to listen for what is “Spanish” in Scarlatti, it may also distort how we hear the music, which transformed the idiom of the country into something entirely other. Of course, in the mashed-up, ahistorical, anachronistic world of listening today, the vector can just as easily be reversed. Listening to Paco Peña’s ensemble play a solea the other day, the trills embedded in the strummed chords reminded me, not of other flamenco, but of Scarlatti’s sonata K. 516. It seems as natural that a contemporary flamenco artist could find inspiration from listening to Scarlatti as they could from Miles Davis, or Eddie Palmieri.G


In the places where Kirkpatrick turns to describe Scarlatti’s music, the similes come hot and heavy: “like a fencer jockeying for position,” “like a quivering cat about to spring,” “like a dancer maintaining movement in limited space.” All three figures emphasize the physicality of the music. But it’s the image of the dancer to which Kirkpatrick returns most often, both to help the reader hear the sonatas, and to coach the keyboardist as to their proper performance.H

Given the “rhythmic polyphony of the Spanish dance” (303) that defines so many of Scarlatti’s sonatas, the keyboardist must respond in kind, first by feeling the dance in the music, and then by activating it in their performance. “The imaginary coreographing of Scarlatti sonatas cannot be overdone,” Kirkpatrick writes. “Many of them, especially the Spanish dance pieces, are ruled far more by the sense of bodily movement than by vocal feeling […] All counting should be done in dancer’s terms, in terms of the duration of a breath or a gesture.” A good example of this “counting done in dancer’s terms” is the felt difference between the third and fourth notes of a four-beat phrase: a “thing known to every dancer, but [… which] frequently escape[s] the keyboard player who is rooted to his chair in imagination as well as in physical fact” (311-2). Handcrossings are said to “aspire to the dancer’s bodily freedom” (192); elsewhere, the right hand becomes “the gestures of a dancer,” the left “the steady beat of a percussion band” (304). Performers, then, must supplement the score with a sort of embodied musicality, lengthening and shortening pauses, phrases, and passages, and subtly accenting offbeat notes, in order for the “rhythmic balance” of the piece to be maintained. And rhythm is just one example: realizing the sonatas’ sense of proportion depends, not on mathematical accuracy, but perspective. The good performer is one who can feel these proportions and make them explicit in their playing.

We might legitimately question Kirkpatrick’s mapping of Bach/Scarlatti onto the mind/body dualism, smacking as it does of an antiquated orientalizing of Italy and Spain. It’s worth noting, however, that “body” here does not connote “mere” virtuosity and showiness, of which Scarlatti has historically been accused, but rather spontaneity and movement. “The Scarlatti sonata is an organism that developed at the keyboard,” Kirkpatrick writes, “not on paper … The prodigality of material often gives the impression that a Scarlatti sonata is being made in the presence of the beholder” (260). (One has to admire Kirkpatrick’s choice of words in prodigal, given what we know of the composer’s life.) Not surprisingly, Kirkpatrick suggests that Scarlatti was probably a fabulous improviser.I

An original & happy freak

One of the most fascinating elements of Kirkpatrick’s study is his attempt to trace the evolution of Scarlatti the composer, from the Essercizi, the first (and among the only) 30 sonatas published during his lifetime, which Domenico himself famously called “an ingenious jesting with art” (104), and Burney “original and happy freaks,” to the slower, more lyrical late sonatas. Notes Kirkpatrick, “The virtuosity of the keyboard player tends to become more and more absorbed in the virtuosity of the composer” (165)—all the more regrettable, then, that most 18th– and 19th-century composers only knew the Essercizi.

Using the range of the harpsichord required to play the sonatas as well as stylistic analysis, Kirkpatrick makes a daring assertion: the vast majority of the sonatas were not only copied out during the last half-decade of Scarlatti’s life (1752-7), but actually composed then. Even the Essercizi are fairly late, having appeared when Scarlatti was in his early fifties. Why this late blossoming? As with everything about Scarlatti’s life, much speculation, no answers. Illness, perhaps, absented him from court duties, allowing him time to write. Maria Barbara, his “talented pupil” (78), and her developed taste, might have pushed Scarlatti to develop as a composer; all the later sonatas were apparently composed for her. Or the fact that Scarlatti was an inveterate gambler, and the Queen “extorted” the sonatas in return for paying his debts. (I’m still trying to figure out why no one has made a movie out of that.) Then there is Burney’s speculation that Scarlatti had grown too corpulent in his later years to execute the sort of difficult handcrossings one finds in the flashy earlier sonatas. But Kirkpatrick puts the fat finger firmly on the queen’s bottom: apparently, even the attempts at flattering portraiture cannot conceal that Maria B. was rather rotund in her later years.J

Another conundrum of Scarlatti scholarship is whether the sonatas were deliberately composed in pairs, and intended to be performed this way. In revising the earlier Longo edition, Kirkpatrick corrected the order of the sonatas, “restoring” them to pairs, as at least 400 of the sonatas appear to be in the manuscripts, generally sharing a tonic, the first often lyrical and slow, the second sprightly. Some are so closely bonded that “the last measure of the first overlap[s] the first of the second.” (Interestingly, some of the sonatas are arranged in threes—a wonderful parallel with the poetry of eighteenth-century England, the country in which the “cult of Scarlatti” flourished. The vast majority is written in heroic couplets, but with the occasional rhymed tercet (often indicated by a bracket, at least in my editions) for variety. To borrow Kirkpatrick’s liberal imagination: one imagines ladies fanning themselves and the men barking their dismay at a thirdsuccessively rhymed line!) Kirkpatrick argues that Longo did violence to the sonatas by trying to arrange them into longer “suites” a la Bach, in order to give these “flash sonatas”—if I may be permitted yet another liberty—greater tonal coherence, and persuade listeners of their gravitas.L

Whether they were meant to be performed together or not, there is something seductive about the argument for pairing, since it can be understood as yet another facet of the symmetry that Scarlatti clearly delighted in: just as the sonatas are bifurcated, and each of the two parts intended to be repeated—although this, too, is very much up to the performer; I have seen performances where the repeat is observed and ones where it is ignored—so the sonatas as a whole are paired: doubles of doubles, wheels within wheels. Perhaps, if we look at them more closely, we will find that the pairs themselves have pairs, and so on, and so on, until every sonata has been engulfed in a pyramid of doubles, each layer reflecting the ones above and below. We are back with Borges, though not his camels, but his mirrors.

That said, I think that much of the energy of the sonatas comes from the way the asymmetries Scarlatti indulges in, most often in his second movements, grate against that otherwise crystalline perfection of structure. Was Scarlatti playing with our desire for symmetry—the very things that editors like Longo “cleaned up”—to create that palpable tension that makes his music so appealing? And while it is impossible for me to judge the composer’s contribution to the evolution of keyboard music, there is much to be said about the appeal of his music to a modern sensibility: the dissonances and note clusters which Longo scrubbed and Kirkpatrick restored; those “violent rhythms,” which retain their personable violence in our violently rhythmic cultural moment; and above all, the way the melody and rhythm are wedded into short, attractive lines that are utterly unlike any other composer of his time, and perhaps unlike any other composer in the “classical” canon.M

There is one particularly beautiful anecdote mentioned in the Kirkpatrick which I think illuminates the way an innovative composer works dialectically with the “rules” of their time. The story once again comes by way of Burney’s General History of Music. “Scarlatti frequently told M. L’Augier that he was sensible he had broken through all the rules of composition in his lessons;N but asked if his deviations from these rules offended the ear? and, upon being answered in the negative, he said, that he thought there was scarce any other rule, worth the attention of a man of genius, than that of not displeasing the sense of which music is the object” (qtd. in Kirkpatrick 104). A century later, Beethoven would say something remarkably similar. And again, a hundred years after that, the pianist Marguerite Long would recount a similar exchange between Claude Debussy and one of his teachers, Ernest Guirard. Discussing the resolution of chords: “But how do you get out of that?” Guirard asks. “I don’t deny that what you do there is pleasing. But it is theoretically absurd.” Debussy: “There is no such thing as theory. If something pleases the ear then that’s all that matters” (qtd. in Long 18.)  And then again, half a century later, Down Beat asked Eric Dolphy, “Are bird imitations valid in jazz?” (Did anyone ever dare ask Olivier Messiaen a similar question? And doesn’t the word “imitation” already suggest how the interviewer feels about it?) Dolphy’s response: “I don’t know if it’s valid in jazz, but I enjoy it” (qtd. in Lewis 48).O

Here endeth the lesson!

Krell music?

 As noted, Kirkpatrick was an eminent harpsichordist, and nowhere is he more compelling—and contentious—than on the subject of Scarlatti in performance. In an age when most people listen to keyboard music, including Scarlatti’s, on piano, the harpsichordist’s bias is at once refreshing and problematic.

Kirkpatrick argues that the color of Scarlatti’s music is in the melody, harmony and ornamentation, and that too much imposition of color from without, whether from changing registers at the harpsichord or excessive use of the pedal at the piano, distorts rather than reinforces the composer’s intention. “Scarlatti’s harpsichord writing is so idiomatic, so intimately connected with the essential fabric of his music, that the relation of his music to harpsichord sound very much needs to be borne in mind by those who play the sonatas on a modern piano” (288). For Kirkpatrick, the piano has a tendency to hamper Scarlatti’s music from “speak[ing] for itself”: if the sonatas conceal, by their “brilliant and imaginative writing,” a “flatness” that is part of the limitations of the instrument for which they were composed, then the piano, by its far-greater dynamism, threatens “Scarlatti’s entire proportion of sound effects.” Phrasing is thus more important than a legato style which, after all, was alien to Scarlatti’s instrument. Kirkpatrick also warns against “thick washes of color” and the “danger” of the pedal being used “to sustain notes that cannot be sustained with the fingers” (319).P

I am not sure what to make of these caveats. Part of what troubles me is the phrase “letting the music speak for itself.” Perhaps every performer has experienced the delusion of deciphering the composer’s intention (just as every literary critic once did) and becoming an empty vessel in performance. But I would point to the opposite danger: of turning Scarlatti’s sonatas into curiosities, bits of pottery in a museum, unable to speak in any direct way to a contemporary audience. I think the sonatas live today in the piano in a way they cannot anymore in the harpsichord, an instrument that sounds to most listeners like it belongs to some long-dead alien civilization. I cannot make the imaginative leap to inhabit the sound of the harpsichord emotionally the way I can the piano; it’s even difficult to accommodate my ear to hearing music performed on a period piano. (I imagine I feel about the harpsichord a little like the way my parents feel about the Moog.) The point remains that most listeners—middling classical listeners like me, whose exposure has been primarily to the music of the long nineteenth century—will more likely be able to relate to Scarlatti on the piano, or even on the guitar, than on the harpsichord. If the upshot of this is that a certain nineteenth-century idiom is overlaid or even imposed on Scarlatti’s, then so be it, if this is how performers can best animate the sonatas, and listeners hear them breathe. Is this surrender? Perhaps. But to believe that such anachronisms do not contaminate every performance of “classical” music—to believe that period instruments somehow resurrect a period unwashed in the renovated Alice Tully Hall—seems to me a delusion on a par with “letting the music speak for itself.”Q

That said, Kirkpatrick’s comments on performance do raise a fascinating question: What happens to music composed for an instrument that, over time, falls out of use? Must the music therefore die? I am actually of Kirkpatrick’s mind that there is music so deeply rooted in the instrument on which it was composed that something essential is lost in transcription. But to say that great music is deeply rooted in and shaped by the instrument on or for which it was composed is not to say that it can’t gain something, and touch new, modern audiences, through sensitive transcription and adaptation. Granados and Albéniz are my big guns here: two composers I fell in love with as a guitarist, though they wrote for piano; and to this day, even knowing this, I much prefer to hear their music in transcription. It might be argued that part of the appeal of the Assad duo’s wonderful retro-fitting of Scarlatti for two guitars stems from the guitar’s ability to mirror a harpsichord’s sonority, its pluck and contrast and thinner timbre, better than a piano. But then one considers that the Assads were themselves inspired by Vladimir Horowitz’s recordings of Scarlatti’s sonatas—Horowitz a pianist more associated with nineteenth-century Romanticism—and the whole knotty issue of where the music “speaks for itself” comes full circle.R

Or has it? Kirkpatrick notes that, as with the Spanish dance, Scarlatti was always using the harpsichord to invoke and approximate extra-harpsichord sounds—most prominently the guitar, under whose “spell” he believed Scarlatti fell. “Scarlatti’s harpsichord, while supremely itself, is continually menacing a transformation into something else” (292). Indeed, perhaps Scarlatti sounds right on guitar because, as with Albéniz and Granados, he was thinking and imagining the guitar anyway. The guitarist who plays Scarlatti today was perhaps first attracted to Scarlatti after hearing the sonatas played on a modern piano, in “imitation” of the harpsichord, in “imitation” of the guitar. And now we have indeed come full-circle, with the sonatas finding their home on the guitar, but only after passing through the circuit of Scarlatti’s genius, like a current gaining power by passing through a magnetic field. Krell music, indeed!

Hors d’oeuvres with your Alban Burger

Perhaps my favorite comments about performance address Scarlatti and other 18th-century composers in the context of the twentieth-century concert stage. “The age is fortunately nearly past,” Kirkpatrick writes, “when eighteenth-century composers were subject in concert programs to a kind of ‘type casting’ in which a few Scarlatti pieces, or a little Couperin on the part of the more adventurous, a Mozart sonata or a Bach organ fugue were served up as well-styled appetizers to be unregretted by late-comers and to act as finger warmers and curtain raisers to the ‘really expressive’ music of the nineteenth century” (280). Kirkpatrick goes on to note that despite modernism’s fickle love affair with the baroque, such “type casting” had only gotten worse, with baroque and classical music placed “in a kind of strait jacket created by the newer notion of a profound and impassable gulf between eighteenth-century and ‘romantic’ music.” The result was that performers tended to exaggerate the contrast between the two eras: if Romantic music was deeply expressive, “eighteenth-century music was forced to be pure and abstract; humanity was permitted it only in the most limited form.” In a memorable analogy, Kirkpatrick imagines eighteenth-century composers “defil[ing] [!] before the public like the traditional character types personified in the Italian comedy,” with Scarlatti “play[ing] the role of the buffoon” (281). Kirkpatrick even wonders whether the role descends from the composer’s function at the court—music teacher one step removed from jester, perhaps?—and his having to hide or disguise his more personal and expressive sonatas—those that suggest he was more than a “happy freak.”S

This is an enormously rich passage. First, it makes me wonder why Kirkpatrick thought the age was ending when eighteenth-century music was served up as an appetizer; in my concertgoing experience, which ended about five years ago, the rule seemed to be very much in effect, the only exception being when a pianist decided to focus on the work of a single baroque or classical composer. So far as I can tell, that only happens with Bach and, less often, Mozart; I have neither heard nor seen an entire concert of Rameau, or Couperin, or Scarlatti, or Handel (except the Messiah); the first time I ever noticed an all-Haydn program was at most a decade ago. And as Kirkpatrick suggests, when any of these composers is played in a mixed program, it is almost invariably the first selection. Concerts of all-Schumann, Chopin, or Beethoven, on the other hand, are pretty common. And as I noted in a previous post, modern and contemporary music are an even harder-luck case, always sandwiched between the double prophylactic of the romantic and the classical … or quarantined in series all their own. One gets the sense that the latter has also happened with much eighteenth-century music, as it has become a specialty focus with its own series and niche audiences. All told, we do still seem to be very much denizens of Kirkpatrick’s age.

I am also fascinated by the idea of the nineteenth century as an artistic climax from which the previous century can only be understood teleologically, and the next as apostasy. An interesting contradiction: on the one hand, the Baroque and Classical periods must be understood to pave the way for the Romantic, via the begats of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. The very idea of a “classical” tradition or canon of Great Music imposes unity and likeness on the whole, and a vector that stretches from Bach to Stravinsky (or thereabouts). On the other hand, the Romantic era is understood as a rupture with the previous, just as Modernism is perceived as a rupture, with the Eroica and The Rite of Spring (as well as Schoenberg’s first dodecaphonic pieces) as representative works. As deconstructionists are fond of saying, binaries always decay into hierarchies. But where music is concerned, performance gives this an interesting twist: once the hierarchy has been promulgated, it must be reified through repeated public performance. Or perhaps the opposite is true, and the repeated performance retroactively creates the binary?

Domenico in the heart

Kirkpatrick’s complaint about performers draining the emotion from eighteenth-century music in order to distinguish it from music of the Romantic era resonated deeply with me. My introduction to Scarlatti was via a 1989 recording by András Schiff; the sonatas on the cassette I carried with me to Spain, and listened to above El Escorial, were from the Schiff recording. Given Kirkpatrick’s caveats about the dangers of performing Scarlatti on the piano, I wonder: Would he have judged Schiff’s interpretations to be anachronistically romantic, relying too heavily on what the piano can accomplish (if not to the point of the “undisciplined expressivity” he warns against, which I do not believe Schiff could ever be accused of)? Or would he have championed the poetry of Schiff’s playing against the overly mechanical, abstract approach that has been imposed on baroque music? I find many of the sonatas on Schiff’s disc as lyrical and moving as many a late Beethoven sonata or Chopin ballade, balancing nicely the crystalline perfection of form (the light of those Scarlatti days) and a meditative emotionality that threatens to tear through its surface—what Kirkpatrick calls the “closed” and “open” forms of Scarlatti sonatas, and which I am trying to express through contrasting metaphors organic and inorganic. I should add that my sensitivity to the expressivity of eighteenth-century music was probably aided by my father, an accomplished pianist. One of the cornerstones of his repertoire was Bach’s C minor fantasy, a piece I listened to every night for many years alongside the first movement of Beethoven’s “Tempest,” the first movement of his First Piano Concerto, and Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude and Prelude No. 22—all played with my father’s particularly sensitive use of the pedal. Both the choice of Bach piece and the context in which I heard it likely predisposed me to hear Bach—and later, the addition of the K. 9 (“Pastorale”) sonata by Scarlatti, and even the presto K. 517, to my father’s repertoire—as no less expressive than the so-called “really expressive music” of the music of the century that followed.

Of all my recordings of Scarlatti sonatas—which, taken together, encompass about 100 out of the 555 sonatas, some on piano, some on harpsichord, some transcribed for one or two guitars, and several in more than one format—the Schiff disc contains by far the highest proportion of “late” sonatas. It’s probably a combination of the particular sonatas Schiff chose to record and his performance of them that make them sound so “romantic” to me. Quibbles over proper interpretation aside, Schiff’s is the recording that opened up the world of the composer’s music to me, and against which I have tended to measure other interpretations of Scarlatti’s music. For my Scarlatti must be trying to rise above the gloom and fog of a Spanish monastery at the end of a Spanish winter, seeking those endless ray-filled arcades of summer.

As for Kirkpatrick’s Scarlatti: it probably helps that he speaks as a convert, one who went from hearing Scarlatti as ingenious jester to a deeper appreciation of his music. And while I was in no need of conversion, his book did have something of that effect on me: enriching my own appreciation, prompting me to hear the music in new ways, and reminding me of the transformative power of encounters with great music.T

Here ends my grotesque imitation of Farinelli.


A  Nor have the few book-length studies published since Kirkpatrick’s added much … except more questions! What were the rules for copying? Who was the scribe? So asks W. Dean Sutcliffe in his 2003 study The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style. Sutcliffe also reports that the autographs were destroyed in a fire at El Escorial—those of Seixas and Soler suffered the same fate—i.e., they are irretrievably lost, and with them any other knowledge we might have hoped to gain by their possible discovery. As to the question of public performance: a single letter has emerged suggesting that Scarlatti “performed publicly at the court in Madrid” (73). As Sutcliffe memorably puts it, “What might be crumbs with other composers make meals for the Scarlatti scholar” (69).

For Sutcliffe, the paucity of biographical material is not just a challenge, but an opportunity. “Music,” he writes, “has long invested more capital in biographical portraiture than have the other arts” (2); the assumption being that, since “music is primarily an expression of personality, of emotion, in order to understand the music we must understand the man and his private circumstances” (3). Without the life, we are forced to confront the music, if not on its own terms, then on terms different than the traditional bio-centric approach. The answer is not simply to invert the life/work binary—as Malcolm Boyd does in his Domenico Scarlatti—Master of Music (1986) when he asks, “Can it be doubted that the coruscant textures of Scarlatti’s harpsichord music, its unpredictable turns of phrase and its inexhaustible invention came from a composer with an unusual zest for life and with a genial disposition?” (207) (um … yes, actually, it can be doubted … and that’s the problem!)—but to position the composer more fully in the context of eighteenth-century history and style. Indeed, as Sutcliffe notes, “while the type of contexts sought may have changed [i.e., shifted from biography to culture], there is now a stronger sense that music may not be approached in the raw” (7; my emphasis).

B  Sutcliffe adds that there was a hierarchy of appreciation, with vocal music (Farinelli) on top, and instrumental music (Scarlatti) at bottom. So Scarlatti would have lived in Farinelli’s shadow, just as he would have lived in the shadow of the royal family. Living in so many shadows, how can we possibly hope to see the man?

C  Parma is the name given to one of two most important manuscript copies of Scarlatti’s sonatas. The other is the Venice manuscript. (They are named, as you might have guessed, after the cities where they reside.) While Kirkpatrick surmised that Venice preceded Parma, Malcolm Boyd comes to a different conclusion: with the exception of the Venice volumes copied out in the 1740s, Parma is antecedent, and hence the closest thing to an autograph we have. Sutcliffe contends that between Parma and Venice no one really knows which to privilege.

D  Despite this clear self-consciousness about the difficulties of both his subject and his craft, Kirkpatrick has been taken to task both for being too speculative as a biographer—particularly for overinterpreting the father-son relationship (Sutcliffe 35)—and for “tak[ing] refuge in evocation” (Sutcliffe 8), though this is a broader charge Sutcliffe makes against the entire corpus of Scarlatti criticism, as a response to the dearth of available material. Of course, when there is nothing but space—that Castilian plain!—there are only liberties for the taking. See notes E and T for further discussion.

E  Massimo Bogianckino also shows a predilection for architectural metaphors. What he calls the “arabesque line” of invention recalls “Moorish influence” (The Harpsichord Music of Domenico Scarlatti, 1967 [1956], p. 81). Contrast between the sonatas’ straightfoward beginnings and their more whimsical, inventive later sections Bogianckino compares to the austere steps of some Baroque churches that draw us to explore their animated facades and their flourishes within (82). He connects this to “Arabic taste” and the Spanish Baroque more broadly: a love of ornament and flamboyance that contrasts with the “bare landscape, squalid architecture, social backwardness and poverty” (84).

With this in mind, it’s probably worth taking a moment to ponder Massimo Bogianckino warning against “overindulgence in metaphorical criticism” (131). At one point, Sutcliffe actually blames Kirkpatrick for the “pictorialism” that has sullied writing about Scarlatti (34)—or, more accurately, he blames an “understandable biographical desperation” that therefore seeks a “like” in the composer’s immediate environs. It’s actually not entirely clear whether Sutcliffe blames Kirkpatrick or Scarlatti, whose sonatas’ “supercharged syntax,” Sutcliffe asserts elsewhere, “attract … [a] superlative, straining prose” (38). Whichever the case, it seems rather a lot of lay at the feet of either the writer (no matter how influential—and influence seems to be Sutcliffe’s chief concern) or the composer. Even a glancing familiarity with the history of writing about music would suggest image and metaphor are tried, if perhaps not always true, practices. That said, it is true—and this is the force of Bogianckino’s comment—that they are not always used judiciously.

F  Gino Roncaglia’s observation that “nothing [in Scarlatti] is programmatic, but everything is intensely evocative” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 82) nicely encapsulates the distinction between “Spanish” elements (however we perceive them) laid on cosmetically, and those informing the composing process at the level of conception. (May I lard in one more lovely quotation? “Because his sonatas absorb and transfigure so many of the sounds and sights of the world, and because he treats texture and harmony freely with a view to sonorous effect, Scarlatti’s music may be termed ‘impressionistic’; but it has none of the vagueness of outline that we are apt to associate with that word” (Donald Jay Grout, qtd. in Sutcliffe 81).) Scarlatti, as Sutcliffe puts it, had “a power of imitation unknown to the most refined of programme-music composers.” Bogianckino makes a similar point when he hears in the conclusion one of Scarlatti’s “pastorali” a combination of joy and nostalgia, a “subjective participation” that transmutes program into “genuinely musical terms” (110). (See also note H.)

These statements are worth bearing in mind when reading the extended discussion in the next note (G) about the Spanish elements of Scarlatti’s music. Spanish-music clichés—what Sutcliffe calls “stereotyped local color”—are easy enough for a composer to apply cosmetically, and hence easy enough for an analyst to lift away from the whole. Deep influence—the feeling that the whole of music is so inflected, its “spirit”—is perhaps partly responsible for what Sutcliffe calls “a mode of superlative evocation” (8) in the writing about Scarlatti: the critic is attempting to grasp something that cannot simply be picked off the music’s surface.

G  Malcolm Boyd mentions in passing how little work has been done to explore the assertions, beginning with Burney and his pregones, that Scarlatti’s sonatas are filled with borrowings from Spanish folk music. Even Kirkpatrick, Boyd notes, “makes few attempts to relate the sonatas more precisely to specific types of Spanish folk-songs and dance music.” He was doubtful that new sonatas would be discovered, with the exception of a recently (in 1986) unearthed fandango, which “represents one of the earliest attempts (perhaps the very first) to transfer this particular folk-dance to the aristocratic salon; possibly the composer considered it too ‘raw’ to be included in the queen’s library of harpsichord music” (192).

Boyd does mention a brief article by Jane Clark, “Domenico Scarlatti and Spanish Folk Music,” published in Early Musicin 1976. Approaching Scarlatti from the perspective of a performer in a Spanish folk group, Clark remarks that she does not find the sonatas original or “freakish,” but rather amazingly like the folk music she plays. The sonatas, she asserts, can be better studied and understood in the context of Spanish folk music, and themselves might be of interest to folklorists. Manuel De Falla, she notes, considered Scarlatti “the classic Spanish composer”: while Bizet and Rimsky-Korsakov’s made “Spanish gestures” in rhythm and cadence, De Falla claimed that only Scarlatti had recognized Spanish (and specifically Andalusian) harmony. In fact, what is specific to Scarlatti is Andalucia: not just seguidillas, fandangos, and canarios, which are present in other composers’ oeuvres, but saetas, peteneras, and bulerías. Scarlatti “wrote Andalusian music in the raw,” as Clark beautifully puts it, and was alone among his contemporaries to do so. “I think it is fairly easy,” Clark writes, “for anyone with some knowledge of Spanish folk music to feel the spirit of this music in Scarlatti, but to try and define the letter is more difficult” (19).

A quarter-century later, Peter Manuel would go a long way to “defin[ing] the letter” of the Spanishness of Scarlatti in a brilliant analysis published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society. His article focuses largely on “Phrygian-type cadences on the dominant” in sonatas such as K. 221 and K. 235-6, also apparent in the music of Soler and Santiago de Murcia. Boyd believed the “apparent lack of final cadence” meant the score was incomplete; Kirkpatrick believed the tonic chord was simply left unstated. But Manuel argues these were clearly intentional endings; one Soler manuscript ends with conventional L.D., Laus Deo or Glory to God—to assert anything was missing would be blasphemous! Instead, Manuel, like Clark, suggests studying Scarlatti from the perspective of Andalusian folk music, which exhibits “a distinct type of dual tonicity wherein simple Western polarities of tonic and dominant do not apply” (318). “The pieces cannot be regarded as ending on the dominant, since such an analysis assumes that they are tonal, which they are not […] The D minor and A major chords are best understood as having their own kind of strength and stability, with the A major by convention being slightly more conclusive and stable … ostinatos are better seen as swinging, pendulum-like, between two competing tonal centers” (319). Like the Andalusians, Soler and his contemporaries had a sense of “bimusicality” shared by many Americans who listen to Spanish folkloric music today, based on “the geographical and chronological margins of common-practice tonality” (331). “Gringo” is thus (also) a way of hearing; analysts need to account for the “perceptual habits of listeners experienced in a style system.” Manuel traces this dual tonicity back to the use of IV as “secondary tonal center” in Hijaz and Bayati. He notes that, in Andalusian harmony, even the flat II can be considered a dominant, since it seeks resolution to the tonic. This is not, he emphasizes, akin to the dissolution of harmony by chromatically-inclined composers toward the end of the 19th century, but rather something from the formative period of tonality, “vernacular and guitar-derived,” which followed its own independent trajectory.

Sutcliffe lists a number of features adapted from folk music, and particularly from flamenco, in his analysis of sonatas K. 548 and K. 107: melismatic style, heavy ornamentation, decorated repetition, limited melodic range, portamento vocal effects, privileging of minor keys and Phrygian harmony, “teeth-grinding dissonances” (114), the ninth above the dominant bass, and “narrow clashes in tonal texture” suggesting quarter steps and microtones. He is surprised by Scarlatti’s capacity to incorporate these elements into courtly music. But he also emphasizes that these elements appear in contrasting contexts, to the point that they sound parodic of the “exotic” style, a style which Scarlatti also stylizes in his adaptation. Maybe, Sutcliffe speculates, the interest in folk music operated beyond individual appropriation and “encouraged a sense of the contingency of musical style altogether” (120)? (For more on this last point, see note K.)

The question of the influence of folk music on Scarlatti’s style becomes more complex when we consider that he was not simply a court composer with an ear attuned to the music of the streets, but an Italian immigrant who made Iberia his adopted home. Boyd believed that it is “possible to exaggerate the relevance of the Spanish experience” (180), noting that some progressions critics have labeled “Spanish” might actually have their origins in Italian music Scarlatti would have been familiar with from earlier in his life. As such, he suggested expanding the range of study to include Neapolitan, rather than solely Spanish, popular music. Bogianckino, too, argued for expanding the range of Scarlatti’s folk influences to include Italy, noting that some elements scholars have associated with Spanish guitar, particularly tremolo and an effect like the lowering of a closed hand upon the strings, he believes find a closer analog in the “persistent, querulous and transparent sound quality typical of the mandoline”: “Neapolitan transparency, rather than agitated Spanish restlessness” (103-4), characterizes these effects. Bogianckino also hears nostalgia for Italy in Scarlatti’s pastorales, and approvingly cites Longo’s observation connecting one such sonata to a Neapolitan or Abruzzi pastoral of the Christmas novena (109). Finally, he compares some of the sonatas to commedia dell’Arte—both the music and the acrobatics required of the keyboardist—performed in public squares (85). (All these Italian echoes make one wonder why there wasn’t an Argentinian Scarlatti cult instead of an English one!)

Questions of influence are yet further complicated by interference between courtly and popular styles and instruments. Sutcliffe, for example, notes that Scarlatti may have responded to courtly guitar (e.g., Santiago de Murcia) as much as to popular … and—just in case we need to muddle the geographical vectors yet more—courtly guitar was particularly popular in France (81). There is also some question as to whether the Andalusian cadences mentioned in Manuel’s article might descend from modal, a capella church music and the slow movements of Italian concertos. Add to all this that Naples was under Spanish rule (Sutcliffe), and the whole very fraught question of how Scarlatti’s Italian heritage, Spanish environs, and the broader European courtly context interact becomes a tangled morass.

But wait! There’s more! For even within Spanish music there are myriad complexities, as Clark suggests when she points to the specifically Andalusian elements of Scarlatti’s sonatas. Nor—despite a global tendency to conflate the two—is Andalusian folk music flamenco, which Sutcliffe notes is more “more introverted, tense and highly ornamented than traditional popular forms” (110). (Never mind that, as Sutcliffe also reminds us, the music wouldn’t be referred to as “flamenco” until after Scarlatti’s death.). And of course, even were we able to untangle all the skeins of influence—Andalusian, Iberian, Italian, courtly, and popular—we would still not know why Scarlatti’s folk borrowings are so much more “intense” than the “idealized folk styles that were acceptable enough for court consumption” (Sutcliffe 112). Was it, Sutcliffe asks, because the queen loved to dance? Could the royals even tell? (For an illuminating discussion of this question with regard to social class, see Sutcliffe, p. 112.)

(N.B.: This “why,” to which Sutcliffe returns several times in his text, ended up grating on me. It seemed more intended to unsettle any and all received wisdom than to be taken at face value. Isolation, for example, seems like a perfectly good reason for Scarlatti’s originality. But for Sutcliffe this does not “explain” Scarlatti any more than it does Haydn. “Other composers placed in similar circumstances would not have been able to react in the alleged manner” (33). Well, of course. How high does Sutcliffe really want to set the biographer’s bar? With these sorts of questions, any biographer might as well give up in “desperation.”)

With all this Spanishness in mind, it seems important to conclude this extended note with a caveat (pace Sutcliffe) about essentializing nationhood. Leonard Meyer: “A composer’s representation of [folk or national] sounds is always partly dependent upon prevalent cultural traditions for ‘hearing’ and conceptualizing the phenomenon in question […] We are in no position to assess the form taken by folk idioms well over two hundred years ago and should not extrapolate back on the basis of knowledge of later examples” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 107). Sutcliffe adds that “folk elements cannot really be heard at all until they are brought into a high-cultural context and thus given a basis for comparison.” In this way, the objection that we don’t “know enough” about the actual folk music of Scarlatti’s time is rendered moot; you can’t remove “later accretions” to uncover some original folk style; such a style is always a product of the way these elements are heard, translated, and integrated into a “high-cultural context”; and as such, “authenticity is not essential to the experience of such music in the sphere of high art” (108). Elements that we come to hear as expressions of folk nationalism are constructs, whatever their relationship to some imagined, unrecoverable folk/national essence. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the rest of Europe’s Orientalist attitude toward Spain—and likely my own as well!—has played into the desire to find a Spanish “essence.” The Spanish, not surprisingly, have been defensive about the issue of “Spanishness” in Scarlatti’s music, and about his influence in Iberia. Sutcliffe even accuses Spanish musicologists of retreating into an essentialism that is not easily distinguishable from the Black Legend, an example of the way “the members of a marginalized culture collude in its essentialization” (67).

Sutcliffe includes a provocative quote from Linton Powell about the music of Joaquin Rodriguez, who, for Powell, “tends to carry on figurations and sequences much too long and to wander harmonically with no clear sense of a tonal goal. Anyone who has examined Spanish keyboard music of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries will find these ‘faults’ […] They appear to be native Spanish traits, endemic to the music”—traits that, Powell speculates, are a holdover from “centuries of intimate exposure to an alien Near Eastern culture” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 120). Sutcliffe’s gloss is revealing: “If this seems to collude too easily with the essentializing of the land of mañana, one simply has to have played through some of the figures of Albero and Soler […] To this Westerner at least, the gigantic sequences one finds may be exotically enticing, but they can equally be infuritating and upsetting, so implacably do they continue on their way” (121). For a discussion of this putative Spanish “passive attitude to time,” see note M.

H  The distinction between a cosmetic and a germinal interaction with Spanish folk music is nowhere better expressed than with regard to dance. Sutcliffe’s observation that very few of the sonatas are identified with a particular dance, despite eighteenth-century custom—think of any Bach suite—is illuminating. Dance, he asserts, is “an impulse” rather than a form; not a template or rhythm for the composer to imitate, but rather something that permeates every aspect of the music. Kirkpatrick’s note that the sonatas are “ruled … by the sense of bodily movement” is echoed by what Sutcliffe calls the music’s “transcendent physicality.” At the same time, Sutcliffe is careful not to “sentimentalize wildness”; instead, sonatas like K. 305 and K. 262 “are idealistically irregular, expressing the blur of activity, the frenzy, the exhiliration of bodily movement.” As with Kirkpatrick, this sense informs Sutcliffe’s comments on proper performance. “The performer should not hold back,” he writes. There is an “anxiety” that “‘the music’ may be swallowed up by physical gesture and, in being so, somehow lose its integrity; yet in Scarlatti’s particular case, the novelty lies particularly in the way in which dance gesture can be foregrounded and become ‘the music’” (286; my emphasis).

Bogianckino, too, consistently connects the sonatas to the “frenzied dance rhythms of folk-music colour”; even the pauses are “choreographic,” like a dancer holding a pose. He writes, “It almost seems possible to add the attribute ‘rhythmic’ to every single element going into the making of a Scarlatti sonata, so great is the rhythmic fancy running through the whole texture of it, with its light palpitation or its frenzied pulse” (79). Boyd adds that the “transcendent physicality” of the sonatas may help explain why keyboardists are overrepresented as fans of Scarlatti’s music. (See notes P and S for further discussion of Scarlatti in performance.)

N.B.: It is somewhat unclear to me to what extent high and late Romantics were familiar with Scarlatti’s music, except for Brahms, into whose hands the Vienna manuscript (containing 308 sonatas) came. This historical aside has made me wonder to what extent Brahms’s incredible rhythmic sense is attributable to his contact with the “violent [Iberian] rhythms” of Scarlatti’s oeuvre. I found myself crying out in agreement with Malcolm Boyd, who praises Scarlatti’s “rhythmic wit […] as well as passages of cross-rhythm almost worthy of Brahms” (188).

I  There is a certain discomfort, Sutcliffe suggests, with Scarlatti’s prolificness, and one way it has been justified is by claiming the sonatas were improvised. (That they were merely to be used for instruction is another; see note N). Sutcliffe, however, notes that keyboard music of the time was “looser,” and the “sonatas may have been dictated improvisations” (41). As Charles Rosen noted, improvisation was everywhere in the 18th century, not just the keyboard (Sutcliffe).

J  It is the quixotic assertion of late composition that has been most attacked and discredited. Malcolm Boyd, for example, agrees with what he calls Kirkpatrick’s “general theory,” i.e., that the order of sonatas in the two main manuscripts (Parma and Venice) is largely chronological. But he is not convinced by the “special theory” of late flowering, finding it incredible that Scarlatti would not have been composing in the fifteen years between the publication of the Essercizi and the beginning of copying out of the sonatas. Stylistic analysis, Boyd suggests, is a double-edged sword. (It can be illuminating, though, if carefully applied; he notes that certain ranges of the sonatas employ a particular stylistic feature, which then disappears; stylistic features can also be compared with other music for which dates of composition are secure.) Bogianckino similarly finds the special theory “incredible,” citing, among other things, a letter that suggests Scarlatti’s fame had already begun to spread across Europe as early as 1703, and Burney’s claim that Scarlatti was already known for his “freakish” sonatas half a century his 1773 publication of The Present State of Music in Germany (135). He too finds the stylistic evidence contradictory. Unlike Boyd, however, he refuses to endorse even the special theory, or to weigh in on the “thorny” matter of the sonatas’ chronology.

Interestingly, Jane Clark swings the pendulum of the special theory all the way to the other side. She suggests that the chronology of composition was disordered in the copying out of the sonatas, because Scarlatti left Seville in 1733, and many of the “Spanish” sonatas she mentions appear later in the chronology. “What seems more probable,” she writes, “is that he wrote a great many of them, and I would almost dare say most of them [but then you just did], during his first four years in Spain, the years he spent under the spell of the music of Andalucia” (21). I am flummoxed by Clark’s logic here. What is there to suggest that the impressions of Andalucia did not remain in Scarlatti’s memory after he left that region? Had Scarlatti gone to Andalucia only later in his life, then we might have a good benchmark for periodizing. But given that the composer began his Spanish sojourn in the south, there is little we can extrapolate. Either Seville made him belt out sonatas flamencas like mad, or the sound stayed with him after he left. More likely it was both. Clark’s comment that more “timid” and more “confident” attempts at Spanish music stand next to each other is so subjective as to be meaningless. (Assuming her feeling is correct—however one would assert this—it could simply be that the composer was able to more fully realize an idea on a second attempt  … or a first one. Hence one problem with stylistic analysis. We might ask for the same consistency from the stories of Maupassant, or the songs of Schubert (see note I). (Cf. Sanford Friedman’s beautiful realization of that composer’s visit to the dying Beethoven, criticizing his own earlier songs for being “longwinded,” and asking the maestro, “You didn’t find the ringing of the convent bells [in ‘The Young Nun’] overdone?” (Conversations with Beethoven, p. 245)—a wonderful irony, as Beethoven would have no more been able to actually hear Schubert’s works than his own later ones. I love to imagine Scarlatti asking the same question of … who? “Don’t you think that guitar-strumming effect at the beginning of K. whatever is a little … heavy?”)

Sutcliffe puts Kirkpatrick’s theories in the context of the history of music criticism. For Sutcliffe, Kirkpatrick falls prey to a master narrative—one that subscribes to what Warren Dwight Allen called “the ideology of progress,” where “individual works are made to tell a story [about the composer’s development] in which they function merely as pieces of evidence” (Sutcliffe 4): the arc of a composer’s (and really any artist’s) life beginning with flashy, youthful works, moving on to a rich middle period, and concluding with a “digested maturity,” where “everything is at once thinner and richer” (the phrases are Kirkpatrick’s). (See also p. 279 for a fascinating discussion of “liberation” from virtuosity, which involves a movement away “not just from the physical body, but from sonority itself” (280). Indeed, the shadow of Beethoven’s genius is a long one, and cast both backward and forward in time!) (N.B.: I confess that this model has always appealed to me; see, for example, “Arcless; or, Pure Dirt” (12.29.13).) It almost goes without saying that Sutcliffe finds Kirkpatrick’s “special theory” ludicrous. But like Clark, he also questions the chronology of the manuscripts, finding little or no stylistic evidence for pairing: the pairs are a product of compilation, not composition. Perhaps the compilers consciously created the “periods” which would-be biographers then retroactively project onto the composer’s life? While there is a “middle period” that seems different (V 5-7), Sutcliffe suggests these works might have been written for a new pupil. In other words, Scarlatti was not undergoing an organic process of maturation, but rather adapting to the external circumstances of his profession. (To be fair, we should recall that some of Kirkpatrick’s theories about Scarlatti’s “evolution” as a composer are also keyed to (speculated) external circumstances.) Sutcliffe is also unconvinced that Kirkpatrick’s other yardstick, keyboard size, can help date Scarlatti’s compositions.

K  I’m taking yet another page from Borges’s book here—one of the countless I’ve torn from the author’s Babelian library—by creating an apocryphal section, an endnote without a parent. Here, the source is one of my favorite stories: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” And it has to be K! The first letter of Kirkpatrick’s name; the letter that accompanies the best-known and most-used of the four (count ‘em) different catalogs of sonatas; the letter that symbolizes the scholarly legacy Sutcliffe and so many others have grappled with. If I must give it a name, I will call the ghost parent-section “Scarlatti,” the quotes signifying not title, but euphemism.

For Sutcliffe, Scarlatti lends himself particularly well to contemporary musicological study because of his self-reflexive style, a style birthed in part by his ever-changing life circumstances and environs, which made him “conscious of styles, of various options for musical conduct.” Scarlatti, he writes, “ma[d]e a virtue out of not belonging, or not wanting to belong” (8). While Sutcliffe notes that self-consciousness is not unique to Scarlatti, in Scarlatti “none of the styles or modes of utterance of which he avails himself seems to be called home” (8).

Malcolm Boyd believed that Scarlatti’s more “intimate, refined and even soul-searching” sonatas have been overlooked because the fast, dynamic ones tend to be more popular. Sutcliffe argues that this has led performers to over-emphasize the slower sonatas, and to slow down their tempos, “invest[ing] their performances with what seems to me a false gravitas” to “make the composer sound more serious” (10). To be fair, Sutcliffe blames this on a cultural propensity to equate slow with serious, and vice-versa; and he goes on to distance Scarlatti from such discursive models, proposing bodily expression—dance—in its place, and suggesting as well that there is no reason for bodily expression to occupy the subordinate position in the binary.

Be that as it may, the comment about “false gravitas” rankles. Sutcliffe, it seems, cannot allow the possibility “true” gravitas if he wants to paint Scarlatti as a self-reflexive proto-postmodernist. But why shouldn’t the realities of exile and homelessness, of the seasonal calvary in tow of the royal family, allow for actual pathos? Why remove from Scarlatti the possibility of tragedy—or, for that matter, what Bogianckino called “genuine, not baroque, laughter”? In attempting to rescue Scarlatti from the clown-image that has pursued him through history, even by calling into question cultural biases about tempo and bodily expression, Sutcliffe seems to want to substitute the jester who is making fun of us. Given the madness of the king, this is admittedly appealing … but also sadly limiting.

In Scarlatti’s “mixed style” (109) Sutcliffe, like others before him, hears wit, distance, and self-reflexive practice; it explains why Sutcliffe, rather than wanting to smooth out differences, militates for emphasizing the clash and clang between court and street, galant and baroque, mannered Italian and “violent Iberian rhythms,” and a kitchen sink’s worth of other binaries, all of which “encourag[ed] … [a] sort of fruitful creative schizophrenia” (15; my emphasis). In K. 277, for example, Sutcliffe hears “the brutal interruption of the galant melodic style” (15). In another, K. 398, rather than subordinating the drones, parallel melodic intervals, repetition, and simple keys typical of the pastorale, Scarlatti calls the listener’s attention to them (87). In all cases, Sutcliffe focuses on how Scarlatti contextualizes elements “to exaggerate [their] difference,” or inserts them into “contexts that suggest the impossibility of [their] artistic presence” (109). Scarlatti is thus the consummate self-reflexive composer, consciously playing with and undermining generic form; Longo, by editing out all the musical smut (“harmonic asperities, as Boyd terms them), “attempt[ed] to provide the sort of generic security that most of the sonatas conspicuously deny” (85).

Sutcliffe makes a similar argument about Scarlatti and counterpoint: not that the composer did not know how to follow the rules, but that he deliberately flouted them. Sutcliffe’s broadside on K. 254 is memorable: a kind of “skit on counterpoint,” he calls it “an invention gone wrong,” “lame,” “much messier than it sounds,”  “unsuccessful,” “pompous,” “uncertain,” “inconsequential,” “going around in circles,” with a tendency (this well beyond K. 254) to “embarrass … the contemporary performer”; “nonsense,” “annoy[ing],” “exhausting,” and exhibiting “intermittent ugliness and sprawl”—all this in the space of about a page. All in all, it asks the question “what we [?] are prepared to accept in the name of art music” (18). But all this is recuperated as “satire” and “mock ineptitude”—in other words, conscious rebellion: again, a Scarlatti who did not want to belong. (To be fair, we should bear in mind the context for this discussion: a letter to the Duke of Huescar in which Scarlatti argues for a decline in “compositional standards” and paints himself as the standard-bearer of the “rules of counterpoint.” Sutcliffe reads this letter as ironic; it is against this letter that he analyzes sonata K. 254.) It’s also probably also worth noting here that Bogianckino called the composer a “contrapuntal master,” and suggests that his style is wrongly viewed “through the distorting lens of the Fugues of Bach” (124); Scarlatti’s teacher, as he tongue-in-cheekly puts it, was “unable to fill him with the reverential fear” of parallel fifths (123). Where Sutcliffe hears irony, Bogianckino hears contrarian innovation. See note O.)

It’s no wonder Mark Kroll, in his review of Sutcliffe’s book for Notes, got the impression Sutcliffe doesn’t like Scarlatti much (e.g., “He considers Scarlatti’s music to be crude, ugly, compulsive, and perhaps even mentally unbalanced” (146)), even as he points to the irony that such characterizations are offset by “numblingly thorough note-by-note” analyses that rather suggest deep appreciation. But I think Kroll misses the point here. Sutcliffe may not like Scarlatti, but he clearly loves the “Scarlatti” he fabricates from his analyses and sets to a sort of mechanical laughter at his harpsichord, at his own oeuvre and the history of its reception. Is this not very much the Scarlatti for our (sneering) historical moment? It suggests that those of us who have been moved by Scarlatti’s music are, in essence, deaf to its real meaning: while we weep in the front row, Scarlatti is winking over our heads at Sutcliffe, sitting behind and (of course) a little above us.

That Sutcliffe also claims to hear in the sonatas a “democratic openness” to “any and all sounds” (37), “a carnivalesque inclusion of the whole (musical) world” (123)—indeed, one section of the book is titled “Heteroglossia”—seems to contradict his other assertion, that “none of these styles … seemed to be called home” (my emphasis). Why not say instead that he considered all of these styles home? Why not, that is, emphasize the open, expansive, world-embracing Scarlatti instead of, or at least as much as, the witty, sneering, world-destroying Scarlatti? Perhaps the problem is a false dichotomy between self-reflexivity and “stereotyped local color,” as though a third option—recognition of the expressive potential of his musical surroundings, and a predisposition to allow them to infuse his composing process at a germinal level—did not exist.

Sutcliffe treads gingerly around the question of Scarlatti’s personality, noting the difficulty of drawing conclusions from the few shards of the life and the quicksand foundation of his music; the composer’s putative shyness, for example, is a “way of making positive sense of the absence of information we are faced with” (35). And yet, even cautiously, he is not averse to making negative sense of Scarlatti from his music, such as when he imagines the man to have been “unstable or even schizophrenic.” (See note M.) Is Sutcliffe mocking the “biographical desperation” (34) of those who seek to psychologize the man from a few notes, and hence emulating the postmodern mockery of the Scarlatti he creates for us? In the same way he notes that the music promotes a “superlative, straining prose” in many critics, perhaps only the ur-self-reflexive critic can come to grips with the ur-self-reflexive composer …

One last thought: one also finds in Sutcliffe a certain ambivalence about binaries; he gleefully dismantles them, and just as quickly re-erects them, or erects new ones in their place. As a scholar, one is helpless but to keep invoking binaries as one writes; they are the hydra of all intellectual activity, always staying one step ahead of the critic’s Heraclean blade—the (admittedly fascinating, and occasionally even fruitful) cul-de-sac of deconstruction. One gets the sense—and this is much broader than Sutcliffe—that, after the ritual obsequities to postmodern limitations and handle-with-care labels on all invoked binaries and master narratives, it’s business as usual; we’re just neurotic about it.

L  Until Sutcliffe, the idea that Scarlatti composed the sonatas in pairs seems to have been accepted wisdom—and may be still, since, beyond Kroll’s laudatory but also somewhat jaundiced review, I have not explored how his monograph was received by the community of eighteenth-century music scholars. Now, for those keyboardists today who are still persuaded that the pairs are a product of the composer’s intention, another question arises: were they intended to be performed as pairs as well? Like so much about Scarlatti, it remains an open question. Maybe best to follow Boyd here, who believed the composer took a hands-off approach; we might be happy enough to do the same today. But Boyd is also right to interrogate the nature and context of the sonatas’ performance in Scarlatti’s time, particularly since the vast majority of the sonatas were not published (according to him, a total of 73 sonatas were published during the composer’s lifetime, and only in France and England; they were unpublished in Italy or Spain). Who, besides the composer, might have performed them? In front of what sort of audience, in what setting, and with what expectations?

In both recitals and recordings, keyboardists have tended to follow Boyd’s advice. Pairings are rare, and almost unheard in performance. On my own recordings, only Schiff’s 1992 disc privileges them: 12 of the 15 sonatas on this recording are paired. Of my dozen or so other recordings of Scarlatti’s music, there are only two examples of paired sonatas—and one is on another Schiff recording (I could not find a date on it). The fact that Schiff’s disc was my initiation into Scarlatti’s music may explain why I tend to think of the pairs as natural.

In all, maybe we would do best to make lemonade from the lemons of the historical vacuum, as Kathleen Dale does: “Playing all the Scarlatti sonatas is ‘like journeying in a land where it is always spring’” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 45). It is liberating to imagine we don’t need to know the grand arc of the composer’s life, or the context in which the sonatas were meant to be performed—including the context of Scarlatti’s own oeuvre—to appreciate them. Each is luminous, self-sufficient, always fresh. Why subject them to the vicissitudes of monastical fires, careless or inventive scribes, etc.?

M  Much of the critical debate around Scarlatti’s compositions centers on his predilection for short, repetitive, highly rhythmic passages. In an unpublished dissertation from which Sutcliffe draws, Joel Sheveloff coined the term “vamp” to describe them. Sutcliffe defines them this way: “those apparently non-thematic, obsessively repetitive passages that occur frequently in the sonatas” (23). Kroll calls the term “unfortunate.”

Haters contend that these phrases are overrepetitive and disconnected from the sonata. Sutcliffe, in fact, unites these two criticisms, speculating that the “vamps” “may […] be conceived of as an effort to overcome the sectionalized syntax of the work” (23), echoing a point of Bogianckino’s (“a tiny rhythmic or melodic idea recurs to knit together the scattered fragments” (126; see also p. 60)). He similarly argues that the sonatas’ openings are “offhand” and have little to do with “the creative ‘idea’ of the work” (19). When Glenn Gould describes the sonatas as “scampering from one scintillating sequence to the next” and full of “predictable discontinuit[ies]”(14), he is voicing a similar criticism about dis-integration; and one hears a faint echo of the same point in Sheveloff’s comment that “Scarlatti’s style is composed of ‘an abundance of tiny, special details’” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 39). As noted, editors have shortened or otherwise “finessed” these passages; Sutcliffe, not surprisingly, “argue[s] for naked insistence” (24; see note K). This is a point with which Kroll’s review takes issue, finding these passages “active” and “vital,” and certainly not “non-thematic” (147).

(There is an interesting converse to this: critics tend to look at the sonatas according to what Sutcliffe dubs “the panorama tradition”: Scarlatti’s work “suggest[s] a more or less deliberately coordinated whole,” “a controlling world view behind the entire production of the sonatas” (36); Giorgio Pestelli called them “a single continuous poem with more than five hundred verses” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 27). Individual dis-integration is thus subsumed under a more general totality; the author-function, not “rhythmic pedals” or “vamps,” seals the cracks. Sutcliffe’s contention here is that this “tradition” tends to avoid close attention to and analysis of individual sonatas, a lacuna his book studiously attempts to fill.)

On the question of dis/integration we would do well to remember the examples of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 (Op. 106, “Hammerklavier”) and String Quartet in B-flat (Op. 133), about which Maynard Solomon writes in “The Sense of an Ending,” one of the best essays in his Late Beethoven (California UP, 2003). In both cases, Beethoven either volunteered or acquiesced to the dismantling of his own compositions: the “Hammerklavier” was published in London as a 3-movement sonata, the last movement published as a separate work; the quartet originally featured the Grosse Fugue as its finale, but on the request of a publisher Beethoven wrote a new closing movement, eventually publishing the Grosse Fugue separately (Op. 133). Writes Solomon, “To take Beethoven seriously”—that is, to not rationalize these as evidence of the composer’s eccentricity, hypersensitivity, need for cash, etc.—“would suggest that he may have held a different view from our own concerning the formal integrity of his music. […] Can an aesthetic object like the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata or the Missa solemnis be subdivided or rearranged and still survive as a work of art? […] Certainly these revisions—if that is what they ought to be called—undermine notions of the organic perfection of Beethoven’s greater works. After all, the replacement of the Gross Fugue may be circumstantial evidence of the noninevitability of Beethoven’s structures” (214-5). Overall, “The question of what constitutes a finished work is thrown open” (215). I am taking liberties with Solomon’s argument, since his intention here is to closely analyze these issues in Beethoven’s later works, by examining the composer’s process, among other things. Yet, it’s difficult to read this essay without wanting to apply the analysis much more broadly. Fiction writers are fond of saying the task of a story is to make the possible seem inevitable. Is music any different? To what extent are “formal integrity,” “organic perfection,” and “inevitability” constructions of critical reception? Does anyone really believe that Beethoven’s works could have been thus, and no other, as a dashing young Leonard Bernstein once claimed for his TV audience? To what extent does canonization function as one giant appeal to ethos (for Aristotle the most important argumentative appeal), welding together not just all the works with each other, but within themselves as well?

As for the second criticism, repetition: the whole discourse around vamps (or whatever), and even around calling them vamps, suggests there remains an enormous discomfort with repetition in classical music, as well as with classical’s relationship to jazz and pop music. This dis-ease about repetition has very deep philosophical and cultural roots. The language of the debate here is suggestive: Sutcliffe’s comment about the flamenco-inspired “intoxicating monotony” (120) of K. 404 suggests the activation of unruly pleasure centers in the brain that subvert the reasoning faculty. When Sutcliffe asserts that the vamp in this sonata “cannot sustain the listener’s attention,” so that “we may find ourselves listening to the passing of time and becoming lost in the mechanics of the pattern” (120), he is giving voice to this same art-music assumption about repetition. A key word here is attention: Sutcliffe means the structural attention one is supposed to bring to classical music, did not the “idiot repetitions” (283) threaten to overthrow our reason. Similarly, the idea that the listener becomes “lost in the mechanics of the pattern” suggests at once a bewildered listener and a superficial listening practice. Indeed, the terror here seems to be that we might actually take pleasure in things our enlightened minds tell us are grotesque or idiotic; and that pleasure, simple pleasure, may prompt up to ask for it again … more often than is seemly. Indeed, the minimalists and the tape-loop experimenters of postwar America were radical in a way those of us who grew up listening even partly to riff-based rock and samples-based pop can’t even begin to imagine.

It is also suggestive that this terror (I don’t think the term is too strong) of repetition folds back onto a terror of representation—that is, art music’s inability to represent, to contain, folk music, and to what extent said representation might destabilize or even dismantle the closely-guarded generic boundaries of art music. In K. 502, for example, Sutcliffe hears “a straining toward something that cannot be expressed in the notation, that is quite beyond the comprehension of the world of high art” (119); among other things, Scarlatti is trying to capture “the metrical complexity of flamenco rhythms.” Is the terror here the ultimate failure of art music to represent the living idiom—the fear that classical music is, like El Escorial, a giant tomb? Is it the terror of allowing folk “irrationality” into art music’s ornamented symmetry, of bathing in the waters of the unconscious without drowning? (Sutcliffe notes that folk music is actually more regular and ordered than art music.) Or is it rather that, as Sutcliffe contends about national essences, there is no essence there to represent? Just like we look to the composer’s life for a stable reference point—a reference point denied us with Scarlatti—so we look to folk “essence” as another yardstick against which to measure Scarlatti’s music, an essence that exist only as posterior constructions that can point to nothing beyond themselves. (See note G.)

When Sutcliffe asks whether “the compulsive, repetitive, unstable behavior of the vamp sections [might] owe something to such royal example?” (33)—that is, the example of a king who believed he had been turned into a frog, and would shit his bed and then wallow in it (Sutcliffe 33)—it leaves me little to wonder what he makes of much contemporary music and musical culture. We of course live in a time of not just repetitive music, but repetitive listening, promoted by the abundance of recorded music and technology that allows us to easily skip backward and forward. What “royal example” do we follow?

N  Boyd prefers the term “Lessons” (“Essercizi”) to “sonatas,” as he believes the latter term gives the mistaken impression that Scarlatti’s works are somehow classical sonatas in embryo, rather than something of Scarlatti’s own invention, and much closer to the dance pieces that form the suites of his baroque contemporaries. In fact, both Kirkpatrick and Boyd are careful to back away from teleology: in discussing the similarities between Scarlatti’s binary form and, say, a Beethoven sonata, Kirkpatrick notes that the comparison is not intended to suggest that the former paved the way for the latter. Boyd is even more adamant about the discontinuity.

Bogianckino adds an important caveat here: “Essercizi” was used to describe many pieces not intended for instruction (116). (Such a misunderstanding of their purpose has hampered their appreciation: if one believes they are primarily for “training,” the implication is that they lack “inner content” (Sutcliffe 43).) Their publication suggests he composed not just for Maria Barbara, but also for a wider public. “Either the term is a standard one expressing humbleness,” Bogianckino writes, “or is intended to mean the pleasing exercise of an art that can only bring delight through skill and the understanding of it” (116). Nor are the sonatas intentional about addressing technical problems, in the way that, say, Chopin’s etudes are. In other words: they are neither “lessons” nor “sonatas,” as we tend to conceive of these terms today. They are Scarlatti!

O  According to Bogianckino, Scarlatti’s attitude was by no means aberrant: a “hedonistic esthetics,” the idea that the best art was “the one that most delighted the ear” (13), was common in Italy during the first half of the eighteenth century, as evidenced by many composers’ prefaces and dedications. “Art,” Bogianckino writes, “fulfilled its moral mission by pursuing pleasure” (18), and the composer “claim[ed] his right to express himself according to a new freedom in composition and not keeping to abstract rules that had become oppressive and irksome” (106). While Scarlatti’s innovations could only be justified if they gave pleasure, this clearly did not rule out the bold dissonances in which the composer delighted (41). (Cf. another lovely tidbit from the Burney: “As nature had given him ten fingers, and as his instrument had employment for them all, he saw no reason why he should not use them” (qtd. in Bogianckino 41).

Sutcliffe, too, puts Scarlatti’s “militant creative disdain” in historical context, arguing that the sixty-year interregnum between the “unraveling” of the Baroque and the establishment of a Classical style would have presented something of an opportunity for Scarlatti to “dare to … give way to his fancy,” as Burney put it. He also cautions scholars against taking the famous preface to the Essercizi—or any such document by a composer—too much at its word: “It is fatally easy to allow composers’ pronouncements to dictate the terms for the reception of their music” (74); such documents should be understood as attempts at “public ‘staging’,” not “artistic creed” (75). To read the Scarlatti’s preface as a “unique declaration of his art” is thus to ignore its context. And while it was common, Sutcliffe notes, for composers to engage in such epistolary groveling, it was also common for them to emphasize the referenced work’s gravity. The preface even seems to contradict the occasion of its publication: the conferring of knighthood. Recent interpretations of the preface are divided between those who have been “culturally conditioned” by the composer’s historical reception to take his display of modesty at face value on the one hand (i.e., Scarlatti is admitting that, unlike Bach, his compositions lack depth … and so he has been received), and those who see it as a “modernist refutation of traditional techniques and aesthetic attitudes” a la Burney on the other (76). Instead, Sutcliffe contends that the preface is a decoy; like the title Essercizi, it is “mock-ingenuous,” paralleling the “ironic gap between the claimed modesty and the arrogant fluency […] of the technical-musical contents” (77).

Whether Romantic paean to artistic freedom or one more example of Scarlatti’s nimble fencing with public perception, for me the most tantalizingly ambiguous word in the Burney anecdote that spawned this endnote is pleasing. What Bogianckino calls “overtones of heart-rending melancholy” (97) Sutcliffe calls “teeth-grinding dissonances.” Hence the problem: one listener’s rent heart is another’s ground teeth. For his part, Boyd claims that Scarlatti “clearly relish[es] the discords [in this case, 5-4 suspensions] for their percussive effect” (183; my emphasis). And don’t we? Perhaps we need to be reminded that tension, musical or otherwise, is not necessarily unpleasant. Anyway, the metaphorically polarized reactions to Scarlatti’s dissonances remind us the extent to which the aesthetics of listening is at once culturally constructed and deeply personal. Bogianckino’s historical gloss on the term “mordent” forms a nice coda to this discussion: it’s called a mordent “because it is like the bite of a tiny animal which, as soon as it has bitten, leaves, and does not hurt …” (Gasparini, qtd. in Bogianckino 124; my emphasis). Why not say, “… and is actually quite pleasing”?

P Harpsichord, clavichord, and piano all coexisted throughout the eighteenth century, and they sounded more alike than they do today (Sutcliffe). As such, the question of whether and to what extent harpsichord actually was Scarlatti’s instrument of choice has become—like pretty much everything else—unsettled. Was Scarlatti’s oeuvre really the “final flowering of harpsichord,” Sutcliffe asks? Or were the sonatas regularly played on one of Maria Barbara’s fortepianos? (Bogianckino notes that pianos were sent to the Spanish court from Florence; some of these were converted into harpsichords.) Sutcliffe tells us that “there is strong circumstantial evidence linking Scarlatti with the history and promulgation of the early fortepiano” (4); some have even called Scarlatti “the piano’s first greatest advocate.” Others think piano was used only for accompaniment. Again, the fact that Scarlatti was composing in a transitional moment—here not between ascendant schools but ascendant keyboard instruments—helps explain why he has fallen between the cracks of both performance and scholarship. Sadly, both pianists and harpsichordists have shied away from Scarlatti, each for their own reasons. As Hermann Keller laments: “If only both sides would play him at all!” (qtd. in Sutcliffe 49). (Sutcliffe adds another “crack”: Scarlatti’s bi-nationality. National consciousness about a composer goes hand-in-hand with institutional support; Scarlatti, as he puts it, “lacks the weight of an entire culture industry behind him” (5).)

As to why so many harpsichordists have ignored Scarlatti: Sutcliffe believes it is because they tend to be too proper to grasp Scarlatti’s witty style—a “spiritual antiquarianism” (29) he associates with the early music movement, and that drains the sonatas of performative presence. It is a point that echoes nicely the rigidity Kirkpatrick decries in the performance of eighteenth-century music, but here under the new guise of militant authenticity. (N.B.: Sutcliffe does note that Wanda Landowska was an admirer. It’s hard for me not to hear Landowska as the obvious choice for Scarlatti; I only know her via my parents’ record of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, a piece whose openness and playfulness perfectly mirrors the “ever-changing free musical fantasy” (66) Bogianckino and others hear in the “free” sections of Scarlatti’s sonatas. With the exception of the Brandenburg Concertos, Landowska’s was the only harpsichord I ever heard until I tried to find harpsichord recordings of Scarlatti.)

About those harpsichordists who do play Scarlatti, Sutcliffe can be quite withering, particularly about their rhythmic liberties; in his review, Mark Kroll strikes back that “rubato and individual interpretation” contribute much to the pleasure of listening to the sonatas. I would tend to agree with Kroll. Why shouldn’t the performance of Scarlatti’s sonatas mirror what Sutcliffe called the “democratic openness” of his compositions?  Or at least, given the unsettledness of the debate about Scarlatti’s primary instrument, the equanimity that Horowitz displayed in his liner notes to the record that led the Assad brothers to their sublime two-guitar transcriptions? The pianist, Horowitz writes, “should not attempt to imitate a harpsichord too much, neither should he use all the resources of the piano which would destroy the style of the music.” Come to think of it, that’s not so different from what Kirkpatrick said, though spoken from the shore of the other keyboard.

For someone who was introduced to Scarlatti on the piano, and has listened to his music almost exclusively on the piano, the unsettledness is heartening. But why should it be? Why should the contemporary listener breathe a sigh of relief just because scholars now say, “Don’t worry. They were probably composed for the piano”? Again, it partakes of that strange fantasy that the harpsichord allows us more direct, “authentic” contact with Scarlatti’s music, rather than coming to us “encrusted” (the word is Justin Davidson’s; see note Q below) with the same centuries’ worth of associations and veiled by the same centuries’ worth of cultural scrims. Any “original” sound is unrecoverable. And yet, we cling to this idea of contact with the site of composition, just as we do to some essence of the composer discoverable to the biographer, and to a folk essence distillable from the music (see note G, particularly the quotation from Leonard Meyer).

Q  Justin Davidson, writing on the eve of a 2010 festival that was to pair the same Beethoven symphonies performed by both period and modern orchestras, noted the impossibility of hearing musical works—particularly revolutionary works like Beethoven’s Eroica—with the freshness and rawness of their debuts, no matter how we try to recreate their unruly births into our sonic universe. Interestingly, he held out hope for contemporary listeners, whose ignorance of the classical tradition might allow them to hear some semblance of the shock of discovery. It strikes me as overly optimistic—and my Writing About Music students, with whom I have shared this article, have generally agreed with my skepticism. Then again, Davidson doesn’t seem entirely convinced, either. “We can’t unravel a history of listening,” he writes, “and the work can’t easily slough off its encrustations of meaning.” Many of the “encrustations” he mentions, filtered as they are through popular culture, are as familiar to the seasoned classical-music listener as to the novice. For the first group, such associations cannot simply be scrubbed away by the restoration of period instruments or the theme-parkish resurrection of so-called period ambience; that’s concert as Civil War battle re-enactment. For the second—and returning to Scarlatti—we might ask what “encrusted meanings” and new sets of expectations the harpsichord brings. In what contexts has it been used, or sampled, in this era of “democratic openness” to any and all sounds—many more than Scarlatti could have imagined? The harpsichord’s timbre, after all, positions it closer to the luxuriant decadence of Lady Gaga’s goth-pop. Second cousin to the organ, it might partake of the Gothic intrigue of Phantom of the Opera. Maybe there is a second life for the superannuated instruments of the West … although “life” might be stretching it; it’s more like a flickering image, a ghost in the machine.

R  Kirkpatrick won’t let that go without giving a parting shot for the harpsichord: “Many composers most noted for an idiomatic command over their instrument […] make the most frequent borrowings from other mediums [….] Instead of diminishing the effect of the instrument, Scarlatti’s borrowings heighten its character and augment its range of expression to such an extent that his music must be regarded as much in extra-harpsichord terms as in terms of the harpsichord itself” (199). If this is so, then does it follow that the works of composers with the most “idiomatic command” are also the ones that most flourish in transcription … and hence perhaps the ones who survive the vicissitudes of history, the constant evolution of technologies of musical production and consumption? Or is it true that the re-positioning of all other sonorities on their chosen instrument means the most is lost in transcription? (Can the answer to both these questions be yes?)

S  Not surpisingly, this kvetch of Kirkpatrick’s is echoed by a number of other writers, from Bogianckino (“Scarlatti’s harpsichord art has … alternately been classed as contaminated or infantile, according to whether it was seen in that light [i.e., degraded by the vogue for Italian opera and thus made ‘impure’] or through classical-romantic eyes” (102)) to Jane Clark (the sonatas are only good for warm-ups or encores; they are “superficial miniatures”). The source of Kirkpatrick’s “appetizers” comment may be Kathleen Dale; see Sutcliffe, p. 58, n. 156.

Glenn Gould, whose position as the scion of Bach interpreters “necessarily” put him in the anti-Scarlatti camp, gives a nice nutshell description of Scarlatti-as-buffoon. In a radio broadcast almost two decades after the publication of Kirkpatricks’ biography, Gould remarked that the composer “is at his happiest, and best, glibly scampering from one scintillating sequence to the next … and as a result his music possesses a higher quirk quotient than that of any comparable figure” (14). The sonatas are full of “offbeat gimmicks” and “predictable discontinuit[ies]”; “vivacity and goodwill” are their most felicitous attributes. Backhanded compliments at best, coming as they do after a list—glib, scampering, predictable, quirky, gimmicky—that oscillates between patronizing and insulting. Gould’s Scarlatti is childish and phony, his music’s ideal venue a children’s birthday party. (The fact that Sutcliffe sometimes emulates Gould’s rhetoric, peppering his analyses with expressions like “three-card trick” and “unarty” (284), helps further explain why he raised Kroll’s hackles … and occasionally mine as well.)

Horowitz once again serves as an interesting foil, in part because he is much more associated with Romantic than eighteenth-century music, suggesting that “classical-romantic eyes” may be more forgiving than Bogianckino believed. “More are slow than fast,” he writes in the liner notes to his recording of Scarlatti sonatas, “and many are quite poetic, nostalgic, and even dreamy, very much in the bel canto style.” Horowitz also praises the composer’s originality and his folksy, accessible style. Of course, all of these are tropes that would appeal to the Romantic imagination, and suggest why Scarlatti might have been taken up by some Romantics, not just Brahms (whose praise was somewhat reserved), but also that greatest of keyboard Romantics, Chopin. (Not all, of course; Schumann wasn’t impressed. But then Chopin wasn’t impressed by Schumann. There are limits to what we can glean from these merry-go-rounds of composers’ tastes.) All of which underscores Kirkpatrick’s point that the “impassable gulf” between eighteenth- and nineteeth-century music is indeed a product of twentieth-century canonization and periodization; while other “gulfs, ” geographical and cultural rather then temporal, such as that dividing Germany, Bach, and the high Baroque from orientalized Spain and Italy, are perhaps even more pertinent to the performance (or lack thereof) and reception of Scarlatti today.

T  Most post-Kirkpatrick scholars have been evenhanded in their criticisms of Domenico Scarlatti. Bogianckino, for example, praised the book’s “brilliant and effective formal and stylistic analysis of the sonatas,” but noted that the text lacks a “thorough, convincing historical background.” He also notes the book does not “strike the [proper] balance […] between the enlightened performer’s conversation and the profound analytical approach” (134). Thirty years later, Boyd was still calling the book “pre-eminent,” citing in particular the revised edition of 1984, and noting that later scholars have “reviewed and built on Kirkpatrick’s work” (223). If, of all the studies discussed in this post, Sutcliffe’s is the least charitable, it may be because of a backhistory Kroll alludes to in his review: apparently Kirkpatrick attacked Joel Sheveloff’s as-yet-unpublished (1970) dissertation; and Sutcliffe, who draws heavily on Sheveloff, seems to see his monograph partly as payback time. (The misspelling of Sheveloff’s name in Kroll’s review speaks volumes.) Kroll also comments on the irony that, for all Sutcliffe’s disparaging of Kirkpatrick, he echoes many of his ideas. (Even I, lay reader that I am, noticed Kirkpatrick’s observation about rhythmic figures carried across bar lines in Sutcliffe (see p. 84). I believe it was Kirkpatrick who suggested that Scarlatti’s early a cappella music, which did without bar lines, might explain why the composer felt so comfortable ignoring them.)

All this reminds me of something Sacvan Bercovitch once said about Perry Miller, the putative father of American Studies, whose death was followed by a “partricidal totem feast […] when a swarm of social and literary historians rushed to pick apart the corpus of his work” (xv). Such seems to be the case with many a founding study. I am obviously in no way qualified to mount a defense of Kirkpatrick’s book, and it’s certainly not the goal of this post to attempt it. Nor is it really necessary. I only hope I have sufficiently communicated my appreciation for his work, as well as the many virtues of the subsequent studies discussed. It makes sense that those parts of the book Bogianckino called the “enlightened performer’s conversation” would bear the most fruit for the lay reader, as well as providing some breathing room between the excursions into analysis, which many of us with a smattering of theory in our backgrounds actually enjoy slogging through, in limited doses.

I’m also reminded of the classic arguments about literary translation, some of which I mentioned in “Eight Years in the Pit” (12.7.18), as a way to make some analogous points about writing about music as a form. Several years ago I taught Chekhov in one unit of my Studies in Fiction sophomore-level English class, and among the texts I scouted was the newest Norton Critical anthology, which takes translation as its theme. It is an impressive, imposing volume, comprising many more stories than the previous edition (or any one-volume anthology I am aware of), and the voices of many translators, as opposed to the standard Constance Garnett translations of the early twentieth century, which introduced Chekhov to an English-speaking audience. It was partly the sheer size of the volume that made me avoid it—Chekhov was one of five authors we were reading that semester. (N.B.: I ended up settling on The Essential Chekhov, a very good, accessible anthology of twenty stories selected by Richard Ford.) But the varying quality of the translations was also a factor in my decision. Do I want the translator who can perfectly encapsulate every nuance of Chekhov’s Russian, with the “mountains of footnotes” Nabokov vitriolically argued for when the English itself is inadequate? Or do I want a readable literary work in its own right? As a scholar I might prefer the former; certainly I would welcome its addition to the Chekhov canon. But as a teacher, and, frankly, as a reader, I much prefer the latter: the work of literature Nabokov decried. Anything else is a dead letter—one of Nabokov’s poisoned and pinned butterflies. I don’t want a specimen; I want something that breathes.

And so with writing about music. Obviously the meticulous, exhaustive, and exhaustingly self-reflexive work of a Sutcliffe is a welcome addition to the world of Scarlatti scholarship. But as a lay listener, seeking to hear and understand the beauty and power of Scarlatti’s music in a deeper way, the erudite, evocative, poetic, and deeply insightful words of a Kirkpatrick are preferable. Come to think of it, this is not very different from literary criticism today, widely lamented for its inaccessibility to the lay reader. (Actually, there is no reason it should be. But nor is there any reason older, more accessible criticism cannot still be enormously illuminating for the curious layperson … and for the scholar as well. I’ve often wondered—to embed digression within digression—if our field hasn’t lost something in its disparaging of older methodologies. We emulate the sciences to our peril—and I mean this existentially, given the state of the Humanities today. Our field does not progress by revolutions; newer methodologies and interpretations often extend and “subtilize,” rather than supplant, older ones.) Now, if I knew Russian, would I hate Garnett? Perhaps. I do not and will never know Russian. Must the pleasure of Chekhov forever be withheld from me? Yes and no. My Chekhov is part Garnett; my Jean Genet is part Bernard Frechtman; it is their voices, as much as the authors’, I fall in love with. I am comfortable with this—at least, I am resigned to it. Not to be would suggest (to me) an unhealthy obsession with “authenticity”; the sort of thing that drove my partner’s friend’s ex-husband to hire a chemist to analyze the water he brought back from his hometown in Italy, and then reproduce the balance of minerals in Phoenix, so that his espresso would taste right. (Maybe this explains the divorce?)

I will never know Scarlatti the way Kirkpatrick or Sutcliffe do; but then they will never know Scarlatti, not really. They will certainly never know Scarlatti quite the way I do, thirty years after sitting on that rock above El Escorial, in the always-unsettled landscape of musical memory, where Scarlatti, ever the world’s composer, and now history’s as well, rubs shoulders with foreigners and non-contemporaries of all stripes.



In an on-line world, particularly since the lockdown, I wanted to take a moment to tip my hat to that alternative universe, the brick-and-mortar one that existed up until about a year ago, and that I am convinced will soon exist again, and in very much the same way it did before, despite the ongoing obnoxious black-swan rhetoric from the Wired crowd. I discovered Bogianckino’s and Sutcliffe’s texts in the stacks of the City College music library, one of favorite places in the world (see “Goodbye, Music Library!” (12.31.12)). I’m pretty sure I found Kirkpatrick’s book at Alabaster books, that beautiful and venerable used bookstore on 4th Avenue just south of 14th Street. Boyd’s was also a used-bookstore find, though I can’t remember which; maybe East Village. The Horowitz record is in my father’s collection. I know this is not the way of the scholar—that, had I done my due diligence, I would have discovered Kirkpatrick’s study had been revised and re-published in 1984, and I might have preferred it.

I was also unable to go through all my extensive marginal annotations in Sutcliffe’s monumental study—one has to stop at some point, post the damn post, and move on—hence my terror of straw-manning him. (I am already having nightmares about my twelfth-grade English teacher, who justifiably C’d my own monumental research paper on H.P. Lovecraft for not having a thesis, rising from her grave over my dumping this enormous blob of thesisless commentary onto an already well-larded blogosphere. I’m sorry, Miss Boyle! I’m sorry!) Once upon a time I imagined this blog’s address on the CUNY Academic Commons might invite the occasional wandering scholar to stop, lean on my gargoyle-and-nail-studded fence, and scourge me for my overindulgence in metaphorical criticism, for taking refuge in evocation, for my foul mouth, my sloth, and my vanity. But apparently Helldriver lives beneath a stone labeled “contempt,” and so is likely safe from those who would defend Sutcliffe’s virtue. (I do not imagine his reputation will suffer one way or another.) It is the way of this blog, which makes no claim to serious scholarship, but rather only to pleasure. After all, it is called a mordent “because it is like the bite of a tiny animal which, as soon as it has bitten, leaves, and does not hurt.”


Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad, Wisconsin UP, 1978.

Bogianckino, Massimo. The Harpsichord Music of Domenico Scarlatti, Trans. John Tickner, Edizioni de Santis, 1967 [1956].

Borges, Jorge Luis. “El escritor argentino y la tradicíon,” Prosa, Circulo de Lectores, 1975.

Boyd, Malcolm. Domenico Scarlatti—Master of Music, Schirmer, 1986.

Clark, Jane. “Domenico Scarlatti and Spanish Folk Music,” Early Music 4:1 (Jan. 1976), 19-21.

Davidson, Justin. “Beethoven’s Kapow,” Best Music Writing 2011, Ed. Alex Ross, Da Capo, 2012. [The article originally appeared in New York Magazine on March 21, 2010.]

Friedman, Sanford. Conversations With Beethoven, NYRB, 2014.

Gould, Glenn. “Domenico Scarlatti,” The Glenn Gould Reader, Ed. Tim Page, Vintage, 1984.

Kroll, Mark. Review of The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style, Notes 61:1 (Sept. 2004), 145-7.

Kirkpatrick, Ralph. Domenico Scarlatti, Thomas Y. Crowell/Apollo Editions, 1968. [Originally published by Princeton UP in 1953.]

Lewis, George E. A Power Stronger Than Itself: the AACM and American Experimental Music, Chicago UP, 2008.

Long, Marguerite. At the Piano with Claude Debussy, Dent, 1972 [1960].

Manuel, Peter. “From Scarlatti to ‘Guantanamera’: Dual Tonicity in Spanish and Latin American Musics.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 55:2 (Summer 2002), 311-336.

Solomon, Maynard. Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination, California UP, 2003.

Sutcliffe, W. Dean. The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style, Cambridge UP, 2003.

Also cited in this essay are the liner notes to the recording of Scarlatti sonatas by Vladimir Horowitz (likely the recording from the early ‘60s, but I don’t currently have access to it), as well as recordings by András Schiff (1989) and Sergio and Odair Assad (1993).


a repurposing*


Keep your ticket in your pocket, that way you won’t lose it. Take it out before you get to the door so you don’t hold up the whole line. The elevators are for the elderly and handicapped, take the stairs. If you get out of breath, rest on the landings, nobody likes to have to sit next to someone sweaty and panting. Use the restroom before the concert, not during. Wash your hands with soap, and for God’s sake don’t dry them on your nice clothes. We may not go to church, but your concert clothes are what your friends would call your Sunday best. Don’t forget to take a handful of lozenges from the bin in the lobby. Show your ticket to the ushers, and let them direct you to your seat, even if you think you know where it is. Nobody likes arrogance, particularly in the young. Get here early enough you don’t have to ask people to stand up. If you’re late, tell them not to stand up, even though you don’t really mean it. Say excuse me, never pardon, and for God’s sake don’t try to step over anybody’s bag, ask them politely to move it. This is how to get down the aisle without sticking your rear end in the faces of the philistines who refuse to stand up for you. This is how to fold your good coat behind you so that the sleeves don’t get stepped on. You have plenty of time to look at your clothes at home, I didn’t buy you that ticket to stare at your clothes. Don’t fidget. Are you listening? Then stop fidgeting. Nobody wants to listen to your chair. Or the paper in your program. The program is for before the concert and during the intermission, nobody likes to sit next to somebody reading during a performance. But I’m not fidgeting. Don’t rustle the paper like that, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Put your program in your bag when the lights go down, not on your lap, it can fall off and ruin the concert for everybody. Put your phone in your bag. Make sure it’s turned off first. On second thought, give it to me. This is how to stow your umbrella under your seat so that it doesn’t fall over and ruin the concert for everybody. This is how to sit with your elbows in, so you don’t usurp your neighbor’s armrest. This is how to cross your legs without kicking the seat in front of you. Don’t uncross your legs during the concert, nobody likes to listen to your pants crinkle in the middle of the Adagio. If you absolutely have to move, do it during the noisy parts, and for God’s sake don’t try to do anything during the Adagio. This is how to sit so the people behind you can see without having to lean to one side. This is how to politely snub your neighbor if they talk to you during the performance. This is how to sit so that others around you know you’re listening attentively. This is how to fold your hands on your lap so you won’t be tempted to drum your fingers. Nobody paid good money to listen to your fingers. Or your feet. But what if my leg falls asleep during the Adagio? Don’t look around at the balconies or the ceiling, the concert is on the stage, I didn’t buy you that ticket to gawk at the auditorium. You can think about boys at school, here you should be thinking about the music. Don’t yawn. If you’re paying attention you won’t get bored. If you have to yawn, do it with your mouth closed, into your fist, like you’re suppressing a cough. Don’t cough. If you have to cough, cough in the rests between movements. But for God’s sake, cough discreetly, not like your father, he sounds like he should be in the hospital. Didn’t I tell you to take some lozenges? If you can’t finish unwrapping a lozenge in the rest between movements, wait until the end of the next movement. If you want the binoculars, tap once lightly on my shoulder. If I don’t hand them to you, I’m telling you I’ve been swept up in the performance, like you could be, if only you stopped thinking about your clothes and boys and stopped gawking at the ceiling and really paid attention. But I did take lozenges. See? Put the strap around your neck so you don’t drop them and ruin the concert for everybody. Don’t hog them, it’s one of your sister’s least-attractive qualities. One pair of binoculars is enough for a family, if we all understand how to share. Don’t applaud between movements, and for God’s sake don’t get up until the intermission. These are just the sorts of things that will announce you as the rock-and-roll fan I can’t seem to stop you from becoming. This is how to applaud with a combination of enthusiasm and discreetness. This is how to applaud with your coat over your arm. This is when to stop. This is how to sit for the encore if you’ve already gathered your things. Don’t stand up unless everyone around you does, and for God’s sake don’t stamp your feet. This isn’t Madison Square Garden. Never shout encore. Never shout bravo. Never shout anything. Are you listening?


* of “Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid, The New Yorker, 26 June 1978. Maybe because I just finished posting about pedagogy, in hindsight it struck me that this might make an interesting exercise for students to do with another genre of music.

Attacking the Big Screens

At the Tokyo String Quartet’s farewell performance last May, I picked up the Winter 2012 issue of the classical music magazine Listen, which I had just begun to receive gratis for my occasional concert attendance at the 92nd Street Y. It would be mid-summer before I cracked it, and found a short article about the rise of multimedia presentations in classical music venues. Reading it convinced me that I should clarify my own position on the matter by posting an addendum to “The Last Waltzes” (07.01.13), which ended with a kvetch about screens at the Van Cliburn competition. Then, after seeing Lamb of God the other night at the soon-to-be-defunct Roseland Ballroom, it occurred to me that these thoughts might warrant a separate post.

Called “Attack of the Big Screens,” the article (by Colin Eatock) describes the different ways video has been employed in symphony halls around the country—from the naturally spectacular (e.g., NASA images of the solar system to accompany Holst’s The Planets) to more interactive and involved productions, such as those by the CSO’s Gerard McBurney. Reception has been largely positive, at least according to the promoters quoted, while producers and critics alike herald a bright new age. McBurney, for example, sees the screen as a way to help free the symphony hall from the shackles of convention, and audiences of their ossified expectations, “wean[ing them] off one of the great destructive influences of our culture—which is to treat art like something you consume, like a burger and a plate of fries”; and Alex Ross’s claim that the New World Symphony’s production of Thomas Ades’ Polaris convinced him that he was “witnessing the birth of a new artistic genre” suggests the potential of multimedia to transform the contemporary concert experience.

Let me begin by saying that I do privilege “abstract” music, music that is “only about itself” (!?), that eschews visual and narrative programs, and the concert hall as a space to experience music qua music. We don’t need the image of Napoleon on his horse or Obama at his podium to feel our hearts swell, particularly after Waterloo or the ACA. We don’t need NASA images of Jupiter, either, though I’m sure they’re lovely. (No, I’m not going to rehearse the arguments or rebuttals about music deriving its greater power from the absence of such programmatic fixity.)

That said, I have no intention of presenting myself here as another version of the “angry man screaming from the balcony” cited in Eaton’s article—although, it must be said, balconies are fine places to scream from. Marx’s aside, I’ve never been one for manifestos. I can think of nothing more pernicious than an artistic manifesto. Visual media present wonderful possibilities for creating other dimensions in our appreciation of music, and vice-versa, and new aesthetic experiences when combined; the concert hall is a perfect venue for exploring these possibilities; and the music-going public should welcome such productions as they would the opportunity to hear any new work, or new take on a classic work. I would argue that the visual should strive to be an equal partner with the music, as in Ross’s “new genre”: to be more than an embellishment, or a literalizing of the program, if one exists.

Now, the Holst-NASA production may simply make obvious the thinness of the score, and there are certainly pieces like it that beg to be aided by some sort of visual prosthetic.* But the Holst example, unthreatening and dollars-and-cents savvy as it may be, is troubling when considered in the context of a broader, creeping visual parasitism—is troubling precisely because it is unthreatening and easily rationalizable. For such “enhancements” suggest that the musical concert experience is no longer adequate for an audience raised on and mired in visual media; and that this is particularly the case when the music is from another time.

What I object to (as I did at the Cliburn, and might, apparently, in places elsewhere, as smaller, nimbler cities race ahead of my own beloved grey dinosaur) is the injection of the TV aesthetic, its flattening/narrowing of the world, of perception and understanding, into every possible place of assembly. In the ostensibly public spaces of the city, it is obnoxious enough; in concert halls, where people go to physically interact with art and with each other, it is even more disheartening. Lap-space, phone space, iSpace, your space, my space: all are one and equal. Or perhaps not: as every place is re-imagined to accommodate the latest iShit, physical space seems increasingly an adjunct of virtual-cellular space. At a time when I can barely get my students to go hear live music—and who are by and large thankful for the experience when they finally do—articulating the concert hall as another version of the phone/home theater seems like an enormous loss.

I understand that the concert hall is not eternal and immutable, that it is a product of historical forces, that it may soon be another quaint object of nostalgia, like the classroom with the chalkboard and my vaunted public square. And I understand, and don’t regret, that the art-entertainment binary has been paradox’d out of existence over the last half-century. But none of this is an excuse to suspend reflection or judgment. Poetry is still different from advertising; corporations still aren’t people. The composer or visual artist who is inspired to think about how nineteeth- and twentieth-century music or painting responds to and intersects with contemporary culture, and to produce work that, pleasantly or unpleasantly, troubles an audience’s relationship to its culture and its canons, whether by transforming the space of the concert hall or by seeking out some alternative, genre-blending arrangement, is not the same as the bean-counter trying to get more twentysomethings’ butts into seats at Carnegie Hall. Go ahead, tell me about how it was always a business, how Beethoven was a “scheming careerist,” as Virgil Thomson wrote, or how the beboppers wanted not to create a new art form, but get their due as professional musicians, as Scott DeVeaux argued. It’s not purity I want, or its loss I mourn. I’d welcome a bit of dirt in a world where everything is distilled to profit.

Music is one way, maybe the best way, to get outside that. Not to escape it necessarily, but to have a space to reflect, to stand back for a long moment from the hive and the chattering tide, to meet the stranger on the other side of you. And so either there is a sad irony in McBurney’s comment about the screen being a way to wean the public off the idea of art as something to be consumed, or that comment was made in bad faith. Rather than defying expectations, the screen, at least from what I’ve seen, seems like the latest way of giving the people what they want—it’s just different people, with different expectations … the ones who have grown up in the culture of art-as-consumption, and consumption-as-art, and who could most use to have their burgers and fries spilled on them.


I don’t have a huge soft spot for the Roseland; it’s always felt more like a wannabe stadium than a big club. That stadium-ness was never more apparent than during the recent Lamb of God show, and it was the screens, the screens, that made it so.

One on either side of the stage, they served two purposes. The first was to give those in the back close-ups of the musicians—just the band’s highly-regarded drummer, Chris Adler, and the occasional shot of guitarist Mark Morton shredding. They were stationary cams with a bit of fisheye distortion, and were not, as a whole, all that intrusive. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something even more dispiriting about this kind of video at a “club” show, Roseland-size or no. Metal shows are—should be?—about an ethic of participation and a total absence of personal space. The sort of contact you loathe on the subway is the reason you go to a metal show. Unless the sweaty, shirtless guy pushes past you and leaves a slug-trail across your arm-hairs; unless someone comes flying out of the pit and topples the people around them, so that you at least feel the ripple; unless somebody trying to get closer to the stage shoulders you out of the way, dragging his girlfriend behind him like a harrow; unless you push back; unless you yourself are touching the people around you and constantly being touched, can you really claim to have attended a metal show? And unless you enter the circle, or push past its madly spiraling currents to that dangerous reef between circle and stage, where the surfers roll over you in the waves of noise, and you feel the soles of their boots or sneakers against your scalp; unless you dare such a Hellespont, can you claim to have gained contact with the music?

It’s difficult to express the difference in power between the back and the front of a club like the Roseland. Each step toward the stage is like a step up the trail toward an erupting volcano. The sound rattles your ribs and pummels your heart; the angle of vision tilts up, so that the band crests over you like a wave. But then this was the precise angle of vision granted of Morton, the cameras hidden somewhere in the monitors. And so the video lulls, says, Don’t bother coming any closer. Don’t move. I am your limbs as well as your senses. Don’t desire; I have prepared a far more interesting spectacle for you that you can achieve for yourself. Why touch, or feel, when you can SEE so well? When I looked out on this sea of Lamb of Godders, they didn’t need the screens; there must have been forty or fifty watching the concert through their phones, martyring themselves, I suppose, so that everyone else in the world could bear witness on YouTube.

So many fans in the cave, taking the shadows for reality, and every wild-eyed, sweaty, bleeding S.O.B. who stumbles past him, a philosopher. But fuck Socrates, I’m talking about the orgies of Dionysus here. Hell, I’ve gone full-frontal Nietzsche …

I did say that LOG used the screens for two purposes, and before closing I should say something about the second. In fact, the first might have been more palatable if the second—which occupied the majority of the video-time—hadn’t been a textbook case in how NOT to use vids. Trite, context-less images of world chaos—you know, Vietnam carpetbombings, Saddam Hussein being arrested, darkskinned people weeping, etc. For other songs, creepy-looking Catholic icons, carpetbombings. For the chest-thumping patriotic song, U.S. soldiers giving the peace sign, carpetbombings. Every cliché of “political” turmoil, every cheapjack religious symbol, every fig of sentimental patriotism, all thrown together into the hopper. It was the sort of bad that revealed the danger of vids per se: that flattening and homogenizing of history until it becomes a reflection of the present, yours. Seriously, if I’d wanted to channel surf between cable news stations, I could have stayed home.

I’m not a devotee of Lamb of God, but I do like the couple of albums I have, and it was sad to see good music spoiled by bad media. And I couldn’t help comparing it with the last time I saw videos used for the duration of a metal performance. For Mastodon’s Crack the Skye tour back in 2009 or ‘10, the band used stills and repeating clips from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, together with other images and color collages. The film was thus treated as a visual found-object poem; on a deep, intuitive level, a bridge was created between music and image, between the album and that most musical of directors’ film. The show was a model of multimedia being used to create a new aesthetic dimension for the concertgoer, and it has left a sort of trace beauty on the album. Not that we need his imprimatur, but it’s hard not to think that Eisenstein, that most open and curious and maverick and imaginative and all-embracing of directors, wouldn’t have been pleased … and Prokofiev, too, whose gift for melody so perfectly lent itself to telling images, and who is the only composer I can think of who raised narrative to the level of music, rather than forcing the latter to kneel before the former.


On the train on the way to Lamb of God I read Edith Wharton’s little essay about ghost stories, where she complains that “the cinema and the wireless” are ruining people’s imaginations. The wireless! How the terror of modernity haunts Wharton’s later stories. In “All Souls,” for example, the protagonist’s broken-footed hobble through her empty mansion leads her to … a radio. The disembodied voices invade the vault-like space; the servants have all disappeared. Who is the real ghost here? That was 1937, but ghostly Edith’s kvetches are hauntingly similar to mine. It’s funny to think of myself as a ghost, a curmudgeonly Edith hobbling behind the caboose of the times, waving my cane and shouting for the train to slow down, complaining about the kids today, their phones and other iThings, their short attention spans and abysmal reading skills. Maybe I have nothing to worry about. Maybe people just gather differently. But worry I do—about the degree and kind of mediation, and what that means for our selves, our egos, our bodies. Music will of course change as our conception of self and society do, as our technologies and modes of delivery do. But if the screen in the concert hall is another bow-shot from the future, I fear what it means for the ways we gather and interact on the one hand, and on the other, where, how, and whether we find space to reflect and meditate.

With apologies for these undertheorized thoughts, for their possibly shrill tone, and for using this blog as a balcony to shout from, the very fact of which undermines everything I have written. A good academic would be reading Habermas on this rather than blogging. My problem with theory is that you can sometimes theorize yourself out of a righteous passion, and what’s the fun of that?


* There are examples of visual art that helps us to understand or appreciate something about a piece of music, and which, although the purpose is perhaps partly didactic, has a beauty in its own right. A colleague recently shared with me the work of Stephen Malinowski, in which pattern and color is used to create real-time visual scores. Apparently, it was originally conceived of as a way to make complex scores more intelligible. Great stuff. Hope it’s projected soon at a concert hall near me …

The Last Waltzes

Three spring piano recitals and a note on the Cliburn.

What a treat to find Yevgeny Sudbin on the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts schedule for a late-March recital at Town Hall. I discovered him a few years ago via a disc of Scarlatti sonatas, his debut recording, and was doubly pleased that his program opened with a suite of four sonatas before moving on to the more traditional fare of Chopin, Debussy, Liszt and Scriabin.

While Sudbin’s Scarlatti takes full advantage of the piano’s dynamic capabilities, he keeps one foot firmly planted in the harpsichord tradition—that is, off-pedal. Like András Schiff, whose recording turned me on to Scarlatti more than two decades ago, Sudbin’s Scarlatti is lyrical without making of the composer an anachronistic Romantic—perhaps a greater danger with Sudbin, given the other composers in his repertoire. For me, it raised the question—again—of how the poetic side of Scarlatti could have been overlooked for so long. Of the four sonatas on the program, only the K. 455 featured the hustle, rhythmic bumpiness, and hair-raising tremolos of that better-known Scarlatti “ingenious[ly] jesting with art.” The K. 27 is rather a monument to gentle virtuosity—at a proper, cantering tempo, the hand-crossings are hardly ostentatious, and add great color to the sonata’s central, descending passage—while the K. 466, with which Sudbin started, and the opus-less G minor sonata display the composer at his most meditative.

If Sudbin emphasized the poetry in Scarlatti too often ignored, his Chopin felt a little dry. It’s as though he were seeking a meeting-place where Scarlatti and his great admirer, Chopin, might break bread. In the thoughtful liner notes to his recording of the Ballades et al., Sudbin writes about his quest for a “perfect Chopin interpretation,” one that balances naïve exuberance and mature reflection. To my ear, his Chopin was a bit too tempered … but then I’m a Judas Priest fan, and so probably not the best yardstick for appropriate levels of exuberance.

The second half featured two of Liszt’s more tolerable endeavors, the Funerailles and one of the Transcendental Etudes, played with the requisite mix of sentiment and pomp. But it was Sudbin’s approach to the two “colorists,” Debussy and Scriabin, that most drew my attention. Here, the Scarlatti was a portent: Sudbin clearly relishes those clanging, resolution-scuttling “unessential” notes that so troubled the sonatas’ early editors and appreciators. His L’Isle joyeuse verged on pure effect, as he compressed the already-attenuated melodic landscape yet further, until almost nothing remained but splashes of color and seething dynamics: those ever-shifting surfaces where the prancing, elvin little melody goes into solution. He worked similarly with the fifth Scriabin sonata, though this had an energy of a different sort, building to a full-tilt blitz that almost sent him hurtling off the piano bench at the end.

Reading Sudbin’s opinion about encores clarified much about how the concert ended. From an interview at pianistique.com: “Some people tell me I have to play more big encores … The audience usually likes it, but ideally, I wouldn’t play an encore. They often trivialize concerts as they are often flashy.” Perhaps. But Sudbin’s first choice of encores at Town Hall was inspired: he re-played the G minor Scarlatti sonata. It made the encore feel integral, and gave the program a cyclical quality, as if we had participated in a voyage to the further reaches of tonality and returned to the “safe” (if very quirky) harbor of Scarlatti, meditating at his keyboard in the gloomy vaults of El Escorial. As though Scriabin were the music Scarlatti heard in his dreams. It also told the audience a Scarlatti sonata is worth hearing more than once—that they are not jests, but solitaires whose workmanship bears loving scrutiny. (“One only needs to hear the same piece twice,” Sudbin has said, “and something might just happen.” Indeed.)

If only he had ended there. That damned sense of responsibility to his audience! He returned, and then again, thin frame dressed all in black, with a shock of black hair combed sideways, like the personification of a semiquaver. The third encore was a souped-up waltz. I thought I recognized it as Chopin. Or was it Johann Strauss? It hardly matters. In such an arrangement, one can’t tell the difference, and one is not supposed to. How daring those chromatic runs must have sounded in Chopin’s day; here, they were stereotypical embellishments to keep the fingers busy, the noise level up, and the audience’s attention fixed. Of course, waltzes are built for such liberties, and Sudbin is hardly the only pianist to add extra chrome, to make it flash and shine until the audience is hypnotized. I saw Marc-Andre Hamelin do a similar thing during an encore to a Chopin waltz just the month before; I think it was the minute, though it must have lasted five, and felt more like ten. How much I would have liked to leave hearing the Scarlatti in my head. For a moment, Sudbin found the perfect antidote to a trivializing encore. Then the demon of responsibility possessed him. Would it be too much to ask a bit more irresponsibility from such a young pianist?


On May 5th, Rafal Blechacz played the last PSC Town Hall concert and the only other piano recital there besides Sudbin’s. In 2005, when Sudbin was recording the Scarlatti disc, Blechacz became the first Pole to win the Warsaw Chopin International Piano Competition in 30 years, and was soon feted as a national hero. According to my program notes, his Deutsche Grammophon recording of Chopin’s preludes and piano concertos have both gone multiplatinum in Poland. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed such a phenomenon, even in my relatively short history of concertgoing. When Lang Lang became the sensation of the classical piano world some years ago, I remember remarking mentally on the number of young, hip-looking Asians at Carnegie Hall the evening of his recital. The same thing happened when “Nobu,” the blind co-gold medalist at the 2009 Van Cliburn competition, made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2011. Was Town Hall filled with Poles this Sunday afternoon? I doubt it. The audiences for that series are almost all subscribers, and only the few returned tickets are auctioned off just prior to a concert.

Not a bad reminder, this, of the deeply national roots of classical music, of how shallow is the soil of invented traditions, and of the tenaciousness of the idea of nation in a globalizing world. For such audiences, the virtuoso pianist seems to be imagined as an athlete who “medals” for his or her country. With Lang and Nobu—two recent fish in a large pool of phenomenal young Asian pianists—a few possible readings suggest themselves: the Eastern champions of Western music “prove” classical music’s universal appeal; or, the Eastern champions of Western music signify Asia’s arrival as a full citizen of the European high-art tradition (whether or not the parents send their kids to Julliard); or, the Eastern performers who dominate the most technically-sophisticated music of the Western canon, and win prestigious competitions in the U.S. and Europe, signal a shift in the balance of world power, towing along all the Western anxieties about a rising China/Chinese middle class (and back through the Asian Tigers, all the way, perhaps, to the roaring Japanese economy of the ‘80s). Blechacz’s golds and platinums can be understood as returning the grail to its “rightful” heir: a Pole brings Chopin back to Poland, and, perhaps, Poland back to Chopin. Here, it is the greatness of the national composer celebrated through the national interpreter, and the trope is one of restoration.

I know these formulations reduce classical music to a big game of Risk. But I wonder if the speculated anxieties and episodes of (to my mind) bizarre musical patriotism are recording the seismic shifts as traditionally European music becomes the music of a global elite, riding on the coattails of liberalized capital flows.

All this does me lead me to question why Blechacz cut the Karol Szymanowksi sonata from the second half of his program. Perhaps it was a bone for the expat Poles he expected would show up to the Town Hall show, and, upon being informed that the audience was made up almost entirely of subscribers over the age of sixty, he decided a few Chopin mazurkas were a safer bet. Chopin notwithstanding, I’m going to be a rogue and speak instead about Blechacz’s Beethoven: his beautiful rendition of the Sonata Opus 10 No. 3. (Hilariously, of a disc with sonatas by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the program notes say only that it was a “huge success”—nothing about Polish platinums.) Clearly a technical wizard, there was no desire to race up-tempo passages in the outer movements or shirk rests in the second. This steadiness, almost implacability, served Blechacz well to make the Largo e mesto deeply expressive without being self-indulgent, and the closing Rondo delicately playful. (And he plays the Largo appassionato of the Sonata Opus 2 No. 2, featured on that “hugely successful” CD, equally patiently. As Blechacz writes there, he “feel[s] that the middle movement is often the ‘heart’ of a work … the place where the composer, as well as the performer, takes the opportunity to reveal in sound everything lurking in the deepest reaches of his soul.” It certainly comes through both in concert and on CD.)

After the thunderous ending of Chopin’s third scherzo, perhaps his choice of encore speaks more about how he approached the Beethoven than words can: Chopin’s waltz Opus 34 No. 2 in A minor. Like Sudbin’s repetition of the G minor sonata, this melancholy song for a lone dancer dignified the program rather than trivializing it. May Blechacz’s sense of irresponsibility never waver.



May also presented me with my second opportunity to hear the brilliant Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall. It would be hard to think of a more vital young pianist. For Wang, simply playing the piano isn’t enough; she subdues it, with the roaring enthusiasm of a laughing cowboy breaking a colt. She crackles from the moment she strides into the stadium: her enormous, unselfconscious bow; the way she flops down at the keyboard and just starts in—no hesitation, no dithering, and nothing dainty about any of it, thank God. All the energy of the walk and the bow and the sit is suddenly channeled into the hands, which start going like sewing-machine needles—one can see the energy in her fingers, which curl as if she were scaling the keyboard—and when they are finished she has to stand up and bow again—has to keep moving—march out on those sharp heels—she is nowhere near exhausted, she has places to go, things to see, other concerts to play! It was a well-chosen program to showcase that energy, from the second Rachmaninoff sonata to the dark, noodling vibrancy of the contemporary “Gargoyles,” and two sonatas by Scriabin.

In performance, Wang makes of herself a work to be consumed alongside the music. Her whole exuberant persona is on display, and expressed, too, in her penchant for dressing out of code. (For this recital, she even changed outfits during the intermission, from red to black, just in case we weren’t paying attention. I confess that, in the first half, as she played Scriabin in that red dress with one shoulder bare, it was difficult not to imagine her as an Amazon warrior, one breast sacrificed to better wield the bow.) True, celebrity culture is nothing new to classical music. But it does seem to have changed in character and emphasis with the music’s desperation to revitalize itself by capturing a younger audience. How can classical grasp its own moribundity, when its very self-conception, the only thing that really unites it as tradition, is the idea of permanence? And how to sell classical to an age group for whom it is already moribund, and for whom mortality is just a bad dream?

Well, do what all the corporations and foundations that underwrite the music do: re-brand. Classical music has long been part of a cluster of signifiers of taste and luxury to which consumers aspire, and concert programs have long been larded with ads for Gucci, Chanel and Lexus. But something has changed here, too. The ads used to be there to sell products to people who had the money to consume highbrow music, or who wanted to spend an evening imagining they did. Now, classical music is itself sold as one more product advertised in the program: the perfumes and wrist watches become suffused with its aura of high culture, just as these products suffuse the music with their auras of decadent luxury. Now, if hip hop can sell decadent luxury to youth of all races, creeds, and income levels, why not classical?

In those rotating risque dresses and ten-penny heels, Wang seems to understand the mechanics of celebrity culture as well as Warhol ever did, and she gets the whole branding thing on the level of the body. She makes of herself a sumptuous feast; hers is a consumable prestige. Not just luxury, but youth, beauty, energy—the only really desirable immortality—for the aged members of the audience to feast vampirically upon, and for the young to be able to see themselves in the (hip, daring, mystical, erotic, timeless) mirror of classical music.

The evening’s program was a long sprint, and she was back in the locker room by nine-thirty while we whooped and hollered for her to come out again. How could she not? Five encores—count ‘em—like the specials at one of those restaurants where the menu represents only a fraction of the available dishes. The first four didn’t differ much from the regular entrees. But the fifth: Chopin, and another waltz, like Blechacz’s, in a minor key: the Opus 64 No. 2. It’s the one where each chorus begins slowly, accelerates to whirling speed, and then repeats more quietly, easing to a halt on a hushed high note. In Wang’s hands, the choruses started tentatively, the music coming to an inaudible stop, like a ball thrown into the air, and then built into whispering runs before petering out in reverie. The dancer gains secret confidence, momentarily forgetting herself in the joy of movement, in the freedom of what she wishes to do rather than what she was always told she must; easing, the memories come back, childhood; the body whirls to a halt, stiffens, the smile fades … I had never heard the story of this waltz before hearing Wang play it—or rather, I had never heard this story of the waltz before hearing Wang play it. It was enough to make me wonder what sort of a pianist she would be if she couldn’t do absolutely anything she wanted.


I shouldn’t single out Yuja Wang to bewail larger trends in the global entertainment marketplace. Classical seems to be between a rock (ha ha) and a hard place: embrace trends and try to grow a new audience, or perish in the history it pretends to bestride. Luckily or unluckily, classical, that numinous qualifier, may be yet more receptive to synergistic barnacling than other, more formally coherent musics.

Attending the Fourteenth Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Fort Worth this June created a whole new opportunity to pursue these reflections. “The Cliburn” must be the world’s most fully-branded and fully-mediated piano competition. At the Cliburn shop, which spanned the width of the auditorium on the first floor of Bass Performance Hall, you can buy pretty much anything you can stamp the image of a piano onto—dog collars, shot glasses, coffee mugs, etc. And not just any piano: this is the elegant, austere logo of the Cliburn competition, cipher for the elegance and austerity of the event. (Yes, on a shot glass.) Upon entering the auditorium, if you happen to be sitting in the upper tiers, you will notice a large screen hanging above the stage, in which you can observe the projected movements of the performer appearing directly below. And not only up close, as through those binoculars you might have forgotten, but (much more important) from a variety of angles and distances, with a little bit of slow panning, a la Ken Burns or your PowerPoint slideshow. Much better to inhabit a series of fantastic, constructed perspectives than remain trapped in your own, subjectivity being the first, most exhausting, and most depressing fact of existence. And never mind the distraction caused by the lag between the sound and the image, or between the movements of the two pianists, the pocket one on stage and the behemoth on the screen. Perhaps the screen could be extended to cover the stage? Just a thought.

Sitting through an intermission rather than going out to the lobby, you will come to understand the true purpose of the screen: to flash the names of the foundations and corporations that sponsor the competition. The Cliburn has an official airline, an exclusive soft drink, an official this, an exclusive that.

Of course, the screen has long been the norm of arena rock/sports culture, and it’s about time classical music adopted it. One can’t get around the screen, not anymore; the very idea is preposterous. (First: There is an “around” the screen? Then: What screen?) The screen also helps ensure that stimulus is constant, for just as there is nothing more depressing than subjectivity, so there is nothing more terrifying than an informationless void. Across the street from Bass Performance Hall, you can watch the concerts livestreamed on a(nother) large screen—the same thing the upper-tier patrons in Bass Hall are seeing, though without the synching issues—for free. A wonderful addition to the competition, truly. The problem is that, during the intermissions, should you once again be unfortunate enough to stay in your chair, while those inside Bass are watching the names of sponsors discreetly flash by, you, freeloader, like the rest of your freeloading buddies watching the competition on line, will be strafed with human interest stories and (exclusive, official) interviews with anyone and everyone associated with the competition, including, now and then, the competitors themselves. These are the generic equivalents of the sort of thing you see during the Olympics—you know, behind-the-scenes with these young competitors, so you can find someone to “root for,” because it’s not enough just to listen to the music, that’s for the judges, you want to know whose father left them, and what they like to cook, and when was the first time they touched a piano, and blah blah blah. The format for commentary and interviews, too, seems pulled right off Sportscenter; I found myself waiting for the question, “How did you feel in that last movement, realizing the chips were down, that missed note in measure 34 still haunting you, and with those broken octaves at quarter-note-equals-two hundred coming at you?” (“Well, I just try to do my best, you know, give it a hundred percent, a hundred and ten percent, you know, we’ve trained really hard for this day,” etc.)

C’mon. Young pianists want to be on American Idol, too, follow the Cliburn on Twitter and friend the performers on Facebook. Everybody loves a good horse race, and everybody wants to be entertained 24-7. Most important: fill time, fill time, time must be filled. Time is money, and life is only so long, so do the math.

God, one begins pining for rests, toad-fat whole-note rests with big, angry fermatas hovering over them like bloated UFOs; for just a moment to clean the aural palette, to create that cushion of silence we can drop the music into, where it can fall without shattering, and without making a sound.

Last summer I lamented that the Cincinnati World Piano competition fails to attract a sustaining audience the way the Cliburn does, and recommended they get someone who can market. Now, I bitch about the Cliburn for its hyper-branding. Hypocrite me, as well as curmudgeon. And yet, this is my third time attending the Cliburn—it only happens once every four years—and I could swear the auditorium was fuller eight years ago, and the livestream room in 2009. I guess more people are choosing to stay home and watch the thing on line, and the money is coming from advertisers rather than ticket sales? The Huff Post reports twice as many Cliburn page hits as in 2009, and what with social media sites all abuzz and asqueal about the competition, there is much talk about the resurrection, at last, of classical music for Generation Z via the magic of the web. And so here we wait outside Lazarus’s tomb, cell phones poised.

Together with the Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Chopin, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Soler, Liszt, Debussy, and Scriabin, there was one piece that had been commissioned by the Cliburn foundation: “Birichino,” by the American composer (and Dallas native) Christopher Theofanidis. Every semifinalist had to play it, so I heard it nine times in three days. By turns foreboding and funny, dissonant, exotically modal and naïvely melodic, childish runs giving way to whacked note clusters, barrages of noise plunging into craters of silence, it was a perfect piece for each pianist to test him or herself against, a piece without a history of expectations, and with a wide canvas on which to dabble. “One only needs to hear the same piece twice, and something just might happen.” Yes, Yevgeny, and something did. Those silences! Some pianists took them more seriously than others. Some seemed a little put off by them. Some invited them to dinner. But the important thing is that you couldn’t get the cameras around them. You couldn’t edit them. You sure as hell couldn’t yabber through them. You had to wait for them to end, and see what came next: a lightly pecked note, perhaps, and then more waiting.

Four Quartets

The Takacs Quartet in 2012, photographed by Peter Smith

The Takacs Quartet in 2012, photographed by Peter Smith

Quartets seem to be in the cultural crosshairs of late, at least judging from two recent middlebrow movie releases, The Last Quartet and Quartet (both 2012). If the latter, a geriatric Brit comedy set in a home for retired musicians, isn’t about a string quartet per se, it’s perhaps that much more an indication that quartet-ness has come to be regarded as a figure for community, a ready-made dramatic framework for exploring the dialectic between individual and group, the converse perils and joys of intimacy and isolation, and the struggles and strains behind finding a coherent, collective voice.

Watching the Takács Quartet in action during their master class at Weill Recital Hall last week was an engrossing reminder of these dramas of collaboration. The subjects were two of Beethoven’s late quartets, the Opus 131 and 132; the participants, three young quartets, the Spruce, Linden, and Attacca. It also made for an interesting contrast with my own previous experiences of master classes, all of which had been piano. When the pianist’s clear, single voice of authority is split in four, the dynamic changes, revealing to what extent a quartet’s unified voice is the product of consent, compromise, negotiation, and argument. The tightly-braided rope that is the quartet in its final, public form unravels into its individual strands, exposing an amiable babel of semi-private voices.

It was in this spirit that Takács violist Geraldine Walther called out, “Don’t worry, Ji Hee, he’s been telling me that for years!” just as the younger violist (of the Spruce Quartet) was about to make a third attempt to appease Takács violinist Edward Dusinberre. Dusinberre was on stage, circling the Spruce, score open in one hand, asking them to pick up the Allegro at different measures, stopping them to comment, ordering them to repeat. Walther sat in the audience; her voice could have been any of ours. Her comment actually provoked a good deal of laughter, as she would several times over the course of the evening, a testimony to the easy atmosphere the class maintained despite the intensity of the undertaking and the grave beauty of the music, as the veterans prodded their younger counterparts to approach certain passages differently and experiment with new sound combinations.

As the exchange between Dusinberre and Walther suggests, the personalities of the Takács players fit neatly into their roles in the quartet, at least as they appear in performance. Dusinberre played first fiddle for much of the evening. The most outspoken and demanding, he also seemed to have the clearest sense of what he wanted, of the dramatic trajectory of the piece as a whole, and the language with which to express it. Cellist András Fejér was the second on stage, though he spent most of his time leaning against its left or right flanks, like Dusinberre’s goon. When he had something to say, he would approach all full of righteous fire, make his point, and then slink away, setting the tempo by snapping his fingers. Violinist Károly Schranz was less present, though he did lead part of the discussion of the first movement of the Opus 132, while Walther sat either in the audience or at the base of one of the columns along the rear of the stage, interjecting something to lighten the mood if the musicians seemed flustered, or taking their side if Dusinberre pushed a little too hard. (As Dusinberre was trying to get more lilt out of a phrase made up of rapid tradeoffs between cello and viola, she said, brightly, “It’s my fault, I told him [Linden violist Eric Wong] to play it that way.”) The prowling dominance of the first violin; the thoughtful if less prominent contributions of the second; the stabilizing role played by the viola; and the pantoum of the cello, who spent much of his time on the margins, but who would thrust himself into the foreground when he had something to say, and then retreat, holding down the tempo. Dialogues have just such a rhythm: characters who speak more, characters who speak less, and characters who hardly speak at all, but whose presence and occasional contributions are all the more necessary for pacing and rhythm, and without whom the drama, which only the others seem to be moving forward, would collapse of its own weight.

From the standpoint of music writing, the most fascinating thing about a master class is the opportunity to watch and listen as music is transformed into something else. It’s a setting where all the nuances of oral and gestural communication are called into play. The swinging conductor’s arm, demonstrating not just tempo, but rhythm, mood and line, often accompanying the singing of melodies. The proximity or distance of the teacher’s body, sometimes leaning in over the players, sometimes touching them—and sometimes far away, the disembodied voice in the room that eventually worms its way into the musicians’ heads, and then into their muscles and sinew. As for the words themselves, they can be brilliantly concrete (as when Fejér asked for a particular passage to display greater yearning, and then affectionate yearning, when he realized that an aspect of the personal was missing), or tumble and bleed into gesture and song; they are tugged this way and that, collected like pebbles to create greater emotional nuance, marshalled together into narrative arcs (sickness and convalescence, despair and hope), or appear as murky tickers along the measures in the score.

At one point, Dusinberre asked violinist Sarah McElravy of the Linden Quartet how she interpreted a particular phrase. When she replied, he answered, “I agree with you; but that’s not what I’m hearing.” He asked her to match her playing to the concept he had just pushed her to wrestle into language. And she did. Even Dusinberre commented on this: the incredible facility these players had for transforming opaque, knotty instructions cobbled together from a clumsy mass of words, gestures, half-sung melodies and snapped fingers into concrete musical expression. It may have been partly the effect of hearing the phrases again, set off from the rest of the movement, and thus framed anew, or even just hearing them more than once; but there was no question about the differences, sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, these changes created for the listener. It is something magical for the non-musician; one comes to appreciate the remarkable plasticity of the musical text that much more.

Another example was the debate about how to approach the different parts of the theme (the droning introduction and the chorale) of the Opus 132 Molto adagio: with or without vibrato? The Attacca Quartet was asked to try both, if only to hear the difference. The first thing one notices is that the lack of vibrato is part of what gives those big, perfect intervals and slowly-accreting harmonies of the introduction their sacred quality; too much voice, too much of the human, ruins the effect—the equivalent of inserting a figure into a Rothko painting. With the parallel introduction of the Opus 132, the Assai sostenuto, the Linden was asked to resist the temptation to play it crescendo. The addition of each instrument successively in the opening phrase did not necessarily mean the volume should increase. And then, for the third essay, another correction: that the sound was not growing did not mean the music should be played tentatively. So we listened to that introduction transform over three or four readings, into something yet more beautiful and more moving; the absence of crescendo had, somehow, an emotional payoff. The same thing happened with the droning of the Adagio: a side of the spirit of the piece hitherto hidden suddenly manifested itself, perhaps not only because we heard a difference, but because we were being taught how to listen.

I’ve noted elsewhere that younger quartets can play the romantic repertoire with an almost histrionic intensity, which can be sometimes exciting, sometimes alienating. The Linden Quartet brought just such an intensity to the Allegro of the Opus 132, stretching it almost to the point of snapping. Here Dusinberre provided a welcome counterweight, reminding the players that there is a limit to dynamic range: if you play all your fortes as fortissimos, there will simply be noplace else to go. (As a writer friend of mine likes to say, “The lights can’t always be on.”)

But Dusinberre and the Takács as a whole played an even more important role in this regard. “You need to lean into each other more,” he said at one point to the violin and cello; and they did, actually physically leaned into each other—producing, once again, audible results. It was a reminder that music making is deeply and essentially bodily, that there is no music without movement. This was clear enough from the nearness of the music-making bodies in the room—sweating, stamping, swaying bodies whose movement, sometimes slow, sometimes vigorous, was responsible for everything we heard. It’s the intimacy of the chamber in chamber music that Weill comes closest to reproducing: the chamber that is the body, its walls erected around that pious organ, itself a mass of chambers, a throne of meat busy flushing blood around the body’s plumbing; and the chamber-pot, the chamber as the place of voiding and excreting. Music has its share of this, is about this, much as we try to spiritualize it, sequester it in big, impersonal cultural temples with ceilings that mimic the heavens.

Of course, nobody knew this better than Beethoven, and nowhere is that struggle with physicality more fully expressed than in the Opus 132. It was, after all, his digestion that struck him down, as it had plagued him his whole life. He wrote the quartet as he recovered from a long illness he had presumed to be mortal, as a “sacred song of thanksgiving from the convalescent to the divinity”—a letter, so to speak, from the body to the spirit. But what does the young musician, the young man or woman, know about these things? This wasn’t just about playing or not playing your fortes as fortissimos. During the jauntier Andante interludes of that haunting slow movement, Dusinberre noted that the musicians were responding too forcefully to the “Neue kraft” instruction in the score. This was hardly the energy of an old man just recovering from a long illness; one could not play these passages with the almost harsh physicality due, say, a symphony or sonata of the composer’s heroic period. This was a late quartet, in the fullest sense of that word. Not to say that a younger artist can’t empathize with and imaginatively understand the aged, ill Beethoven, but rather that a younger artist would be unlikely to come to the piece with this knowledge, and even less with the emotional maturity necessary to embody it.

The last time I heard the Opus 132 played live was last fall at Fashion High School by the Pacifica Quartet. The whole concert was one of the finest quartet performances in recent memory, even, or perhaps especially, in its incompleteness. In the middle of the Molto adagio, the stage lights—true story—went off; a few minutes later the musicians, unable to see their scores, were forced to abandon the performance. (So much for Neue kraft.) Now, it’s hard to think of a piece of music where a sudden plunge into darkness is more appropriate … though a slow fade might have been preferable. I remember thinking, If only we could find a way for them to finish. I’m sure everybody else had the same wish, and the Pacifica, too. And Beethoven? He had such plans: a tenth symphony, another great choral work. That great mournful darkness of the spirit, the animating force of the music: maybe this, above all, was what the Takács Quartet was there to teach.

Closer Than They Appear

     If the most recent World Piano Competition is any indication, there is nothing graceful about adjusting the height of a piano bench. Like the steering wheel of a Cadillac, the knob hardly moves the bench at all; the poor pianist might spend half a minute ratcheting, crouched in tux or evening dress, while the audience coughs and the judges fidget. Once he or she sits down, further adjustment will almost certainly be necessary; and this will mean squatting over the bench like over a scuzzy bar toilet, fiddling with the knob some more; and then sliding it forwards or backwards, bench and pianist tilting perilously as uncooperative legs catch on the stageboards. Tuning a piano may be an art, but this is more like changing a tire—an incongruity of the highest order, given the interpretative magic these pianists will be expected to perform just moments later. And yet, one has a tendency to forget that this magic is also, to a greater or lesser degree, mechanical. Anyway, watching all this squatting and fiddling, I started to wonder if it wouldn’t make more sense to arrange pianists in order of height, or relative length of leg to torso, rather than alphabetically.

Consider the other impressions these young competitors (aged 18 to 34 years) make before they have even played a note. For instance: to look or not to look at the judges? A few glanced up at them before bowing, maybe inadvertently. One young man went so far as to bow to judges and audience separately.

And then the handkerchiefs. About half the pianists wiped down the keyboard before beginning, as though it were an exercise machine at the gym. One did so zealously enough to produce a short glissando.

When it was all done—the bowing, the glancing, the piano-bench adjusting, the wiping—there was a long moment of silence, of focus, sometimes with the hands already poised over the keyboard, sometimes with the hands in the lap, before beginning to play.


So began, in one way or another, the trial of each of the 11 pianists I had a chance to hear at this year’s Artist Division of the 56th World Piano Competition, held every summer in Cincinnati. Pianists aside, my first impression of the competition left something to be desired. My parents and I drove up from Louisville, about a hundred miles, for the Monday afternoon preliminaries, only to find that some of the judges had been stranded at airports, and the one-thirty start time pushed back to three. At two-thirty we were admitted with four or five others to the small Jarson-Kaplan Theater of Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center for the Arts. (Had we realized the size of the venue, we wouldn’t have bothered with binoculars. Trying to focus on the keyboard reminded me of that Gary Larson cartoon of a side view mirror with one enormous eyeball in it, the caption “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”)

At quarter to four there was still no word on the judges. The audience had not grown in size. Then a woman appeared on stage, unannounced, and played the funeral march from Chopin’s second sonata.

What next? I thought. Buzzards circling above the Aronoff Center?

When she had finished, an elderly woman, apparently a matriarch of the competition, announced what we had already learned from the staff, about stranded judges. The competition, she said, would begin at ten the next morning. The box office grudgingly refunded our tickets. We took a few pictures of the whimsical porcine effigies festooning downtown, and drove home.

Happily, if gruelingly, Tuesday more than made up for Monday’s fiasco, if not for its poor handling by the competition’s organizers. The morning block turned out to be two hours (10-12). Each pianist was still given about half an hour; to the six scheduled to play in the three-hour Tuesday afternoon block, a seventh was added. Thus, in a little over five hours, we got to hear just under half of the 24 competitors, playing music ranging from Bach to Ligeti.

One thing that struck me listening to Tuesday’s cross-section of pianists was that you could never tell which composer was going to expose a chink in the armor. There is a tendency to believe that, if one can play, say, the Mephisto Waltz, or a Rachmaninoff concerto, one can play pretty much anything. Hierarchies of difficulty notwithstanding, this is simply not true. One pianist’s flair for the Bartok sonata did not extend to the tricky trills-in-thirds that open the Beethoven Opus 2, No. 3. Another, who played Chopin’s study in octaves as thunderously as I’ve ever heard, and finished her premilinary recital by taking a sledgehammer to Liszt, made several obvious missteps in the first movement of the Beethoven Opus 2, No. 2. These early Beethoven sonatas are no walk in the park—they were written at a time when Beethoven would have been known as a keyboard virtuoso rather than as a composer—but they are hardly benchmarks of transcendental virtuosity. A third pianist, on the other hand, played a lovely Beethoven Opus 90, and brilliant renditions of Ligeti’s “Arc-en-ciel” and “Fanfares” studies … but played the last Chopin etude (the Opus 25 No. 12) by rote. This is the reason, of course, that competitors choose a range of pieces—sometimes, as with the Opus 2 Beethoven sonatas, a single movement from a longer piece: to demonstrate their proficiency at interpreting music of different periods. Chinese-born, Cincinnati College of Music-schooled Hai Jin’s  program was case in point: she played a Mozart sonata, a Chopin etude, a novelette by Schumann, and a prelude by Debussy. What was remarkable about her performance was her chameleonic ability to match her playing to each composer, be it the charm of Mozart or the stateliness of Schumann (something I noted, in an earlier post, about Anna Polonsky).

This brings me to a second point, something I realized listening to the Romanian (and Mannes graduate) Bogdan Dulu play a Bach prelude and fugue during the morning session. His touch and articulation were superb: an absence of legato that was in no way choppy, and an evenness of delivery which, somehow, sounded anything but mechanical. There was clearly a person playing this music, tall figure bent over the keyboard, pants not quite long enough to cover the top of the sock on his damper-pedal foot. And yet, what I felt I was witnessing was an emptying of the self, a making of oneself a conduit—as Emerson famously put it, “a transparent eyeball.” There was no sense of the player thrusting his personality into the music—and very little, by extension, of the sort of affected gesturing and emoting which some of the other pianists indulged in—no more than an occasional raised eyebrow, as though Dulu were surprised at some of the composer’s choices. Mind you, he did not play his second selection, Martinu’s preludes “in form of blues, fox-trot” etc. in this way.* The same almost mechanical precision and perfection of articulation, yes; but with an entirely changed demeanor, and one, once again, perfectly suited to the tenor of these pieces. He was not afraid to swing when swing was due, to let his right arm hang loose by his side while his left hand strode up the keyboard. In terms of the Bach, though, no one else played the composer quite like this the rest of the day. Lovely as the others’ Bachs were, they were not the sort that made me sit up and take notice—the sort that achieves that combination of poetry and geometrical purity one associates with the raptures of the Newtonian universe.

The other particularly memorable recital that Tuesday was by Korea’s Woori Kim. She played three preludes by Debussy, including the spectacular (!) “Fireworks,” and the fourth scherzo by Chopin. This performance was more contentious among the three-judge panel made up of my parents and I, my mother feeling that she Debussy-ized the Chopin, my father arguing that her “Fireworks” was not technically up to scratch. I wouldn’t dream of contesting the latter point, though it may mark a difference between the way listeners and players hear the same music. Then again, there may have been something partly visual about my enthusiasm. Some pianists more dance than play, the instrument becoming another extremity through which they communicate. Not that Kim needed to move much; it wasn’t how much she moved, but the grace with which she executed these movements. The “Fireworks” prelude, for example, demands so many different attitudes and positions from the pianist, that there is a sort of acrobatics in its execution. Under Kim’s touch, I couldn’t help but imagine the piano as a giant cat, its fur stroked first one way, then the other, now with the flat of the hand, now with the tips of the fingers.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the visual appeal of this recital at the expense of the sound, which was similarly remarkable, refreshing, personable. I was surprised—and then surprised to be pleasantly surprised—that she didn’t rely too much on the pedal in her Chopin. Surprised, because I am a listener who likes to be transported by romantic wash. Her Chopin had an uncommon clarity; she didn’t seem to mind allowing the seams and joints to show, so that we were invited to admire Chopin’s workmanship rather than be transported by the Gestalt. As with Dulu, there was a sort of admission here that the music was not a beauty of her own making, but one that she was scaffolding for us, to allow us to hear it more clearly. And yet, “for us” is a bit extravagant. Sometimes I got the feeling—and I think, in some of the best interpretations, the audience should—of being a third party, eavesdropping on an intimate dialogue she was having with the composer. More than note clarity, there was an emotional clarity, a sure-footedness about how she wanted to handle the Chopin. Suffice to say it was not the Chopin I am accustomed to hearing, but one that I feel richer for having heard.

And my bête noire, Liszt? To think one could escape Liszt at a piano competition would be ridiculous. But we were ridiculous; we believed that, by adequately studying the program, and scouring the week’s horoscopes, and making all the proper offerings, we could at least encounter as little Liszt as possible. You know what happened next: judges got stranded, Monday night’s pianists ended up playing on Tuesday morning. And then the pianists themselves, the ungrateful so-and-so’s, pulled pieces from their quarter- and semi-final programs to play in the prelims. And so we ended up hearing a good deal more Liszt than we had bargained for. (Not that my father minded; it was my mother and I who suffered, patiently.) I suppose this is a deserved comeuppance for my anti-Liszt equinox post. Anyway, listening to Liszt after writing my harangue proved instructive. I came to understand that a little Liszt is not a terrible thing; there are always a few passages so brilliant that they transcend their own gaudiness. If only the man had known when to stop. By the end of a piece, whatever good there was has been sluiced from memory, and whatever goodwill I might have felt toward the composer twenty measures in has turned to annoyance, or outright anger. I never thought I would say this about classical music, but … clearly what we need are pianists who will play highlights from Liszt. A medley, like geriatric rock bands do with their older material. And maybe an announcer, to help keep track of where we are.

I didn’t write that. I would never write such a thing. You didn’t read it here.


I hope both the pianists I highlighted moved forward, but unfortunately I have not been able to ascertain whether or not they did. The WPC website has not been updated since the competition. For some reason, the easiest-to-find results are from back in 2009. The crowd for the prelims never broke twenty, although, judging from the applause in the videos posted from 2011, the finals seem to be somewhat better attended. And to think that, according to the program, in 2003 they broadcasted the competition to tens of millions. I know the audience for classical music is supposed to be dying, but does it have to be euthanized? Given the crowds I have seen at the Van Cliburn competitions in Fort Worth—and given that the WPC bills itself as the country’s premiere competition, sports a star-studded advisory board, and has a list of sponsors and contributors that goes on for pages—I can’t help but wonder why it isn’t better known, better attended. Perhaps this is the reason: searching for the names of finalists, I found an undated job posting for Artistic Manager for the WPC. Maybe the position hasn’t been filled? If you’re reading this, happen to live in northern Kentucky or southern Indiana or Ohio, and you have any experience in nonprofit marketing (or website design?), you might try giving them a call. It’s too much good music and talent to be squandered on ten or fifteen gatos locos in the audience, and a half-dozen judges flown into Ohio from the ends of the earth.


* The Martinu was unknown to me, and I haven’t been this wowed by an unfamiliar piece since hearing Jeremy Denk play the Ligeti etudes a little more than a year ago. But then I’m a sucker for modern classical that twists folk and pop forms into bizarre and surprising new harmonic shapes—Bartok, Schulhoff, Barber, etc.

Of Liszt & Other Ghosts

In which the writer spends half the post damning Liszt, and the other half praising Beethoven; among other things.

     I spent a fair amount of energy over the last two concert seasons avoiding Liszt. 2011 was the bicentennial of the composer’s birth, so a lot of pianists took it upon themselves to load up their programs with Liszt. I wasn’t aware of the bicentennial until, walking by the Provincetown Playhouse one day last fall, my eye happened to catch on the all-Liszt program posted by the door. I remembered the Chopin and Schumann bicentennials of the year before, and a light bulb turned on over my head. Franz Liszt. Born 1811.

I was doomed.

Well, not really. Of the dozen or so piano recitals I caught over the last concert season, only a quarter featured Liszt … although this does not include concerts I avoided because they were predominantly or exclusively Liszt.

While it’s true that I’ve never cared for Liszt’s music, the bicentennial seems to have sedimented my feelings, making of Liszt an acquired distaste, and of me an inverted Lisztomaniac. Insipid melodies embellished to the hilt, as though through embellishment they would eventually come to say something. That old saw about Henry James—“he chews more than he can bite off”—actually applies better to Liszt. Hell, I can listen to James chew for hours. Nobody chews better than James. But there has to be something to chew—some inch, as James put it, from which to take that ell. And then the ell itself has to get us somewhere. In Liszt, the embellishment never seems to move the music in interesting directions. It is so much ornament around an empty center: a queen’s ruff on a playing card, a coiffed retinue genuflecting before an idiot king. A shimmering waste; music for magpies’ nests. The pianist Marguerite Long once compared the “fire of [Liszt’s] heart and genius illuminat[ing] the foam of his cascades” in Les Jeaux d’eau de la Villa d’Este to Debussy’s “prodigious love of nature” that “plunged him into that life-giving element, water,” in Reflets dans l’eau. Put differently, Liszt’s water is that of a decorative fountain: pretty, occasionally mesmerizing, but ultimately stagnant. Debussy’s are natural springs. I’d rather swim than watch.

I know it’s sort of un-hip today to bash Liszt. We seem to be in a fawning-and-gushing phase, aggravated by the bicentennial, and spearheaded by pianists who like to play Liszt’s music. (I can understand why, and maybe it’s for the very same reasons I don’t enjoy listening. Monty Python, revised: If you’ve enjoyed listening to this piece by Liszt just half as much as I’ve enjoyed playing it, then I’ve enjoyed it twice as much as you have.) It may be trite to call Liszt out for shallow virtuosity. But then every other approach seems just as stale. First, critics point to twilight and/or lesser-known works in which the “real” composer is supposed to reside (e.g., “Yes, I know that’s awful; but have you heard the ‘Funérailles’?”). Next, these become a justification for re-evaluating the virtuoso pieces for the “real” depth everyone else was too unsophisticated to see. Finally, the empty spectacle of the virtuoso works themselves is valorized through play or irony or some other postmodern fetish. We’re all supposed to stop taking ourselves/art/life so goddamn seriously, admit that all pleasure is guilty, and surrender ourselves to Liszt.

Once we’ve come out the other end, where is there to go but back to the beginning, and call Liszt’s music for what it is: a generally uninteresting spectacle of excess? Isn’t it possible to acknowledge his historical contribution to piano performance—that I wouldn’t have had my dozen recitals to go to last year had there been no Liszt to invent such a thing—without also having to like his music?

Anyway, such were my thoughts—at least some of them—on hearing the brilliant young Chinese-born pianist Yuja Wang in recital at Carnegie Hall last October. She blazed her way through Prokofiev’s 6th sonata—Prokofiev’s piano music can never be played often enough, so say I—and then came back in the second half to play Liszt’s in B minor. It turned out to be a very long and painful second half. And the longer it went, the more painful it got. Don’t get me wrong, the rendition was technically perfect. But I still found myself squirming in my seat, wishing it were over. And when it was, even then I had not heard the last of Liszt: Wang played “Gretchen am Spinnrade” for one of her encores. (At least it’s a Schubert transcription.) Hearing the blind 2009 Van Cliburn competition gold medalist Nobuyuki Tsuji play “Un sospiro” and the concert paraphrase of Verdi’s Rigoletto in the same venue a few weeks later did not change my feelings. Nor did Peter Orth’s renditions of a Mephisto waltz and the Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude at Town Hall in late January. By this point I was starting to feel like a friend of mine who suffered through to the end of Ulysses just so he could say definitively that the book was crap, and no one could say to him, “Well, that’s because you never finished it.” And it was at the Yujo Pohjonen recital, somewhere in the midst of all that Liszt, listening to his beautifully balanced rendition of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” sonata—a sonata that, better than maybe any other, is characterized by a profound simplicity of thematic materials, developed so imaginatively, to reach such unexpected heights—that the difference between the two composers appeared most stark. Now, any time I hear Liszt, I can’t help thinking of the opening bars of the “Pastorale.”


     About a month ago, Fate once again threw a Liszt-shaped obstacle in my path. Maurizio Pollini had been scheduled to play two recitals this spring, one at the end of April, the other at the beginning of May. He canceled, and Carnegie Hall was forced to find substitutes. (It’s amazing how much text one can generate around the trials and tribulations of hearing/not hearing Maurizio Pollini; see “Encore,” 5.9.10.) I had tickets for the April show; unfortunately, they called in Garrick Ohlsson, a pianist about whom I have tepid feelings at best (see “Spring Peoples Symphony Roundup,” 6.15.11). And guess what he was he slated to play? That’s right: an all-Liszt program. Thankfully, I was able to change my ticket for May 6. I had never heard of the sub—a French Canadian pianist named Louis Lortie (that’s him in the picture)—but the program was worth the gamble: Beethoven’s “Waldstein” and “Lebewohl” sonatas, and a cocktail of ballades, nocturnes, and the barcarolle by Chopin. According to the gentleman in the seat beside mine, Pollini had been going to play one all-Chopin program and one all-Beethoven. Maybe Lortie chose the Beethoven and Chopin out of a sense of duty to what the audiences were expecting to hear, particularly after Ohlsson chose to play neither.* In any case, it was the specter of Pollini, rather than the ghost of Liszt, that hung over the afternoon’s performance.

If Lortie assembled his program out of a sense of duty, he did not play the Beethoven as though it were a duty, either to Pollini or to the audience. He played it … well, playfully, highlighting contrasts among ideas rather than continuity between them. This was particularly noticeable in the third movement of the “Waldstein”—the differences in tempo and dynamics between the climax of the principal theme (bars 55-61) and the digressions that follow—and in the “Wiedersehn” movement of “Das Lebewohl,” between the “variations” that erupt from the delightfully anxious see-saw main idea established in bar 11. Now, it’s rare that one will enjoy a sonata with which one is intimately familiar if it is performed too far outside the horizons of one’s expectations. That said, it’s always nice to hear the different accents an unknown pianist will put on the familiar. In Lortie’s performance, the ascending left-hand phrases played against the descending arpeggios at the end of the exposition of the “Waldstein” (bars 82 and 84) stood out in a way I don’t remember ever hearing before. It at once retarded the forward momentum of the passage and  imparted a sort of longing for the tonic just as the music was settling back into the bustling opening theme.

The last two times I heard the “Waldstein” live, there was either a memorable flub (Emmanuel Ax on those stamping chords at the climax of the exposition (bars 62-5)) or something that clearly contradicted the score (Leif Ove Andsnes, who ignored the tremolo in the restatement of the opening theme (bars 14-15 & 18-19)—a whole expressive dimension of the opening idea reduced to mere repetition).** There were no such clear gaffes or liberties in Lortie’s performance (at least that I noticed). Quibbles, certainly—a tendency to be little too staccato in the “Waldstein”’s tempestuous moments, when the sonata demands more romantic wash. But then it’s out of just such quibbles that one’s relationship with a piece of music grows. And then there was much in Lortie’s detail-work to be admired. The slurred octaves (thumb-pinky glissandos?) toward the end of the third movement (bars 462-70)—such an odd, brief flourish, just when we think there can be nothing left in the composer’s bag of tricks—were executed with Debussian wispiness. Compare this to those clanging, chord-scaling octaves in the last movement of the “Lebewohl” (bars 37-44, etc.): a train crossing, right in the middle of a movement otherwise characterized by playful, joyous motion. I had just heard a disappointing performance of this sonata a couple of weeks before, so it was nice to hear these octaves restored to their full, disruptive charm.

It was also nice to hear Lortie really drag out the mere 28 bars of the second movement of the “Waldstein.” The story goes that Beethoven had planned a much more capacious second movement, but scrapped it for the “Introduzione” we now have, turning the original Andante into its own piece. But Lortie’s emphatically, almost Gouldianly slow execution made of this “Introduction” its own piece as well, highlighting its spare, straining beauty, its struggle to reach a climax—a restatement and expansion of the opening, the bass embellished, descending stepwise (mostly) to G as the right-hand figure climbs to full-octave leaps, to a series of harsh high Fs suspended over G and A flat. The G reappears in a different register as a pivot between the two movements: a non-ending that initiates the principal theme of the Rondo, from which the melody settles easily back to the tonic C. Lortie very much played that note subito forte, emphasizing its double role as both irresolution and introduction. (Or did he do so on account of the misplaced applause after the first movement?)

Interestingly, Lortie’s Chopin, the concert’s second half, sounded more dutiful than his Beethoven—a bit stiff, a bit plodding. (And this in the opinion of an ever-recovering prog rocker, who tends to like his Chopin a little stiff.) After the Beethoven, I didn’t imagine his Chopin would lack the rubato so essential to bringing the composer’s music to life. But the Chopin seemed to grow on him; he was better on third nocturne than on the first, better on the ballades than on the nocturnes, and best on the barcarolle, which ended the program.

I’ll leave the Chopin at that—good, better, best—in violation of all canons of good writing. As for the encores, they were Chopin, too, all three of them—or rather two; he ran the second and third together; but then they are adjacent etudes from the Opus 10. The first was another nocturne; it was the best Chopin he played the whole afternoon. Do nocturnes played as encores always sound more satisfying than nocturnes played during the regular program? Because I recall having a similar experience with a nocturne-encore at a Pollini concert. And then that Opus 10 No. 4 etude … could Lortie have known that was a perennial favorite Pollini encore for as well? When he was finished, I couldn’t help turning around to scan the rear of the auditorium. I half-expected to see the man in the flesh, standing in the very last row, applauding.


* Two notes. First, as I would learn from the review in the Times, Lortie had replaced Pollini once before, in 2003. Second, Lortie is no stranger to Liszt. He played the entire Années de pèlerinage in March 2011 at Alice Tully Hall. So maybe he felt he had already done his duty to the composer during the actual bicentennial year.

** No offense intended. Both their “Waldstein”s were otherwise lovely, as has been pretty much everything else I’ve had a chance to hear them perform.

The Interrupted Nocturne

     If Roberto Benigni’s name has become synonymous with the Holocaust comedy, perhaps Roman Polanski should get credit for making the first real Holocaust musical—Springtime for Hitler notwithstanding.

But if The Pianist (2002) is indeed a musical—and let us imagine for the sake of argument that it is—then it is a queer sort of musical: a musical of suspended performances, of music displaced and deferred; a musical where the absence of music is as significant as its presence.

The Pianist opens with a partial rendition of Chopin’s C# minor Nocturne (opus posthumous). We hear it over grainy images of Warsaw in 1939, the eve of the Nazi invasion. The music soon reveals itself to be a radio performance by renowned Chopin interpreter and Polish State Radio house pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, on whose memoir the film is based. As the bombing begins, Szpilman, though a little shaken, refuses to stop playing. But after the frightened sound engineers flee, an explosion blows out the windows of the studio, and he is forced to follow them. We will wait more than two hours—six years of narrative time—for that nocturne to resume.

The interrupted nocturne forms one template for the way diegetic music is used in the film. After the Jews are herded into the ghetto, Szpilman turns to playing piano in the ghetto café. At one point, a well-dressed man at a nearby table asks him to pause in order to better hear the coins he tosses onto the tabletop, listening for which are counterfeit. The request is graciously made, but Szpilman is clearly exasperated. In a later scene, street musicians are forced to perform for Nazi soldiers, and the bystanders, many of them famished and exhausted, are forced to dance—until the traffic they have been waiting on finishes passing, the gates open, and the grotesque carnival is abruptly halted.

By the time Szpilman escapes the ghetto, his family has been sent to the camps, and the only remaining piano—the one in the café—stands silent, abandoned. Playing it is out of the question; instead, he will hide beneath the riser on which it stands until the immediate threat of Nazi violence has passed.

Once Szpilman’s Warsaw city odyssey begins, the trope of interrupted music is replaced by a slightly different one, of music displaced, deferred in space rather than in time. Wherever Szpilman is, music isn’t—or, if music is, it is imaginary. The Bach cello prelude, performed by Dorota, the woman Wladyslaw still loves but who is now married, unattainable, overheard from another room, and then glimpsed through a half-open door. The piano he hears tinkling away in the apartment next door to his first safehouse. The music he hears in his head, that ideal space where the Nazis can’t go, when he opens the lid of the piano in the second safehouse, positions his hands over the keyboard … and then the sweeping Grand Polonaise swells on the soundtrack, audible only to Szpilman and to us as he moves his fingers above the keys, his face beaming. After this second apartment is destroyed in the Warsaw uprising, Szpilman hides in the bombed-out hospital across the street. Starving, freezing, he plays an imaginary keyboard, humming his music quietly to himself. No more Grand Polonaise, and no more soundtrack. The man is almost defeated; the music is almost gone.

As for nondiegetic music, its infrequency—the occasional, restrained use of orchestral music; the lonely clarinet melody that punctuates some of the most tragic moments in the film (such as when Szpilman escapes the trains to the camps to find the ghetto deserted and pillaged)—makes it that much more poignant when it does appear, and the silences between that much more significant. (In the documentary included on the DVD, the set designer describes the filmmakers’ efforts to wash out the color as the story gets bleaker. This “visual silence” is analogous to the disappearance of music, as well as suggesting the moral silence of the Holocaust.)

So what happens to music deferred? It explodes, of course—in this case, in the climactic (if abridged) performance of Chopin’s G minor Ballade for Hosenfeld, the German officer who discovers Szpilman scrounging for food in a ruined home after the Nazis have leveled the city.* It’s a moment of catharsis hardly equaled in cinema, a spiritual homecoming that signals the film’s approaching resolution more clearly than either the German defeat or Szpilman’s rescue by Soviet troops. At that moment, we know the nocturne will resume, closing the six-year wound of the Holocaust, ending the long night suspended between broken night-songs.

It is difficult to imagine a Chopin composition more suited to the moment than the G minor Ballade. It has just the right mix of searching angst and triumphant answer, of defiance and melancholy, and the sort of bold, emphatic finale that Chopin only matched in a couple of his scherzos. The C# minor Nocturne, the piece Szpilman actually played for Hosenfeld, would have been far too ruminative for such a moment—the music of a man reminiscing about loss, not one holding on desperately to his humanity. Of course, as long as he was going to deviate from the memoir, Polanski could have chosen the “Revolutionary” etude—that grandiose, martial volley of notes about an older attack on Warsaw, and about the heroic Polish resistance. It would be hard to think of a worse choice. This is not a moment of patriotic resistance and nationalism, but of individual human resilience. (How Polanski to use a cracked version of the etude instead, in The Tenant!) Even the appearance of the “Moonlight” sonata late in the film—played, one supposes, by German officers—sounds weirdly lugubrious measured against the incessant cruelty of the previous two hours. In contrast, the Ballade chafes at the margins of the narrative and the cinematic frame, threatening to spill out of the diegetic world.


I will be chided for calling The Pianist a musical at the beginning of this post, and I admit this was an exaggeration meant to catch your attention—you know, the sorts of shoddy tricks we teach our writing students. But I think there is an element of truth in this assertion, one that, even if we don’t put The Pianist in the same genre as, say, Singin’ in the Rain, does allow us to think about the film differently. When it begins, with the staticky Nocturne, what should be (non-diegetic) title music reveals itself to be a radio transmission of Szpilman’s soon-to-be-interrupted performance. (There are no titles, anyway. They appear at the end, during a live performance of the Grand Polonaise: here, the “walk out of the theater” music is actually the end of the story.) Other times, we are unsure whether the music is “on” or “off” stage—the “Moonlight” sonata, for example—or we hear music on the soundtrack which only Szpilman hears. The displaced music is another example: it is happening in the story, but outside the frame. I think it is partly this blurring of diegetic and non-diegetic music that energizes the Ballade. As in a musical, the performance is at once inside and outside the diegesis: it draws its power from both deferred narrative resolution (the horizontal), and from its status as a musical event independent of the surrounding narrative (the vertical). In fact, these two sources seem to feed each other: the performance is energized by its function as catharsis, while the narrative is energized by the ekphrastic brilliance of the performance.

In this light, the questions, “Could Szpilman really have played that Ballade after all he had endured, and after so long without touching a keyboard?” and “Wouldn’t it make sense for the piano to be out of tune?” are moot. Here we have this hobbling, hollow-eyed tramp licking out dirty pots, a sliver of a human being, a ragdoll, Molloy lost in bombed-out Warsaw. But the moment he sits down at the piano bench and claws out the first climbing octaves of the Ballade, all of this ceases to matter. As in Dreyer’s Ordet, reality is superseded by cinema; the violation of the possible only confirms a new order of (cinematic) reality which does not cancel the reality before it, but rather transforms it, raising it to a higher level.

Maybe it’s that, since by this point in the film there is nothing so terrible we can’t believe it—a child beaten to death trying to crawl under the wall back into the ghetto, an old man thrown from a window in his wheelchair, a young woman shot in the forehead for asking a question—so there is no act of heroism that can seem out of place. In such circumstances, everything about humanity is magnified, the potential for generosity and heroism as much as cruelty.


The Pianist’s use of music and silence should be considered not only in terms of genre, but in terms of Polanski’s oeuvre. About halfway through, the film shifts radically away from the standard visual rhetoric of German cruelty and Jewish suffering (albeit taken to new heights by Polanski’s visceral style), and toward an apartment horror story very much in the vein of Polanski’s trio of great horror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s: Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976). In each case, the overarching atmosphere of dread is underscored through the sounds (and occasionally sights) of other lives impinging on the central character’s: through walls thin enough to see shadows behind, old doors hidden behind bureaus, and the grotesquely-distorting glass of peepholes. Piano music haunts the buildings where each of these three films is set: “Für Elyse” in Rosemary’s Baby; the descending major scale with one dreadfully wrong note played over and over in Repulsion; and the similarly repeated failure to play the opening figure of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” etude in The Tenant. (N.B.: I was tempted to call this post “Other Pianos, Other Rooms.”) In two of these films, the piano contributes not just to the ambience, but to our appreciation of the protagonists’ increasingly disturbed minds: in Repulsion, the cracked mirror of tonality reflects the oppressive monotony of life for Carole (Catherine Deneuve), a catatonically-repressed hairdresser; in The Tenant, a mangled Chopin etude suggests the Polish emigree’s inability to find place and identity, and his subsequent morbid fascination with the identity of his apartment’s previous tenant. And Rosemary’s Baby? Heard through a wall, even a lullaby can sound sinister … just as a phone conversation, glimpsed through a doorway, the half-seen body the visual analog of a conversation only half-heard, half-understood, becomes, in Polanski’s universe, suspicious.

Unlike its horror-film progenitors, the music in The Pianist is neither the reflection of a fractured consciousness nor the sign of an actual, threatening Other (even, I would argue, when the music is played by a likely enemy). It is rather the only solace the protagonist knows in the suffocating terror of occupied Warsaw. The trajectory of the film is not the slow dissolution of the walls of consciousness which keep the threatening Other (real or imagined) at bay, but the struggle to survive in silence—the physical, emotional, even moral silence which one internalizes as a survival mechanism—until those walls can be broken down, and Szpilman can be reunited with his beloved Chopin. Watching The Pianist reminds us just how sparing Polanski’s use of music often is. Many of his films seem to prefer silence; some positively crave it. In Repulsion, for instance, noise, musical or other, is always a violation: buzzers, incessantly ticking clocks, crashing cymbals, and the frenetic jazz that follows Carole around London.

With The Pianist, it’s as though Polanski had finally revealed his childhood experience as a Holocaust survivor to be the trauma underlying so much of his cinema. For forty years it had been displaced onto the apartment buildings of New York, London and Paris … as well as onto the fatalistic narratives set in Los Angeles and Cornwall. In this regard, perhaps the chief irony of the film is that, while the phantom pianist of Polanski’s horror movies has finally stepped out from behind the wall, he finds that he has not brought his music with him.

The Pianist is not the only one of Polanski’s films framed by performances. Death and the Maiden begins with a snippet of the Amadeus Quartet performing the title piece, and closes with a complete performance of the quartet’s first movement. Like The Pianist, the rest of the film is almost entirely music-less. Death and the Maiden and The Pianist are narratives about silence—the ethical silence of sanctioned atrocity; the historical silence of active forgetting; the silence of the victim in the face of state terror. But if Death and the Maiden is a manual for the misappropriation of art in the service of evil, The Pianist never allows music to be so sullied. (But then it’s not a movie about Wagner.)

Who would have thought Polanski would return to Warsaw, the site of the trauma, for a rare “happy” ending, the mighty resolution of the Grand Polonaise, complete with pornographic close-ups of the pianist’s hands? How different from the irresolution of the concluding performance in Death and the Maiden: the power relationships in the positions and the play of glances between torturer, victim, and attorney; the sense that nothing has changed except knowledge, and that knowledge changes nothing. “I want my Schubert back,” says Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) in Death and the Maiden. “My favorite composer.” Does she get him back? More broadly, can art ever be reclaimed from its appropriation by and for terror? I’m not sure. Most of Polanski’s great films end this way: without real cadences. But the The Pianist most certainly restores to Szpilman his Chopin. And ours.


* The Nocturne Szpilman actually played for Hosenfeld is a far less technically demanding piece than the Ballade. Szpilman’s memoir also reveals that the piano was indeed out of tune. (My argument notwithstanding, I sincerely doubt Sony would release a soundtrack with either the Ballade or the Nocturne played on an out-of-tune piano.) The question of the historical accuracy of the film’s beginning is less clear, at least to me, sinceI haven’t read the memoir. According to the synopses I looked at (on szpilman.net and, of course, Wikipedia), the C# minor Nocturne was part of the program Szpilman played for the last Polish State Radio broadcast in 1939. However, it is not indicated that the performance was interrupted, or that the station itself was damaged. Rather, it was the power station on which the broadcast depended that was destroyed. Interestingly, in the Wikipedia entry on Szpilman, the film’s dramatization of the event—the station bombed, the performance abandoned in medias res—and Szpilman’s memoir seem to have been conflated.

Bartok, Salt Lake, Emerson & Me

The jazz guitar instructors at the University of Utah liked to tell us, their Intro Jazz Guitar students, that we were much maligned by the rest of the music department. It’s true that we were a motley-looking bunch. Many of us weren’t even music majors. We were drawn from all corners of the university: architecture, engineering, and in my case, English. This was the fall of 1992, and I had just entered the “U of U” as a graduate student. I was supposed to take two classes a quarter, for a total of eight credits. Full-time status, however, required nine, without which I wouldn’t be able to defer my loans. Eventually I found out that I could take one credit of “independent study,” to be used toward my dissertation. But in my happy ignorance I went looking for an undergraduate class to make full time. Music Theory wouldn’t have me—the class was packed with majors—so I opted for Jazz Guitar.

The guitar class turned out to be a great way to refresh between teaching freshman writing in the morning and taking graduate classes in the afternoon. Three days a week I’d lug my guitar halfway across the U of U’s sprawling campus, down from the Medical Plaza apartments at the base of the Wasatch foothills, to Orson Spencer Hall, where the English department was housed. I’d leave the guitar in my cubicle while I went to teach. Then I’d carry it across the rest of campus, down the hill and one leg of the horseshoe of President’s Circle, to David Gardner Hall. Sometimes I thought it wasn’t even the class that helped; just going into the music building, another world within the balkanized world of academia, was purging.

Across the hall from the guitar class, Ardean Watts, then-director of the University Symphony Orchestra, was holding his own “class.” It was called “Music for Pure Enjoyment.” Coming up the stairs, I’d run smack into a bulletin board, the sign tacked there promising “No analysis!” Underneath would be the program for the week. He did the entire cycle of Mozart piano concertos that fall, and if memory serves, selections by Schoenberg, Vaughan-Williams, and Beethoven. Although he always chose the program, Watts invited students to bring in their favorite recordings of the programmed pieces.

But the day I walked out of guitar class and, rather than going down the stairs, timidly crossed the hall and sat down, Watts and a few others were immersed in Béla Bartók’s string quartets. As the narrator of a Ken Burns documentary would say: It was like nothing he had ever heard before. Except Ken Burns says that so many times it ends up sounding like bullshit. To me, it really was like no music I had ever heard before. I didn’t even think a violin could sound like that. It was as if I had walked in on the middle of Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” and listened for a minute before someone deigned to tell me that, by the way, I was listening to a guitar.

I didn’t tell Watts that, of course. He was a charming old man with a long white goat’s beard and a tremor. He would sit among the students who had happened to wander in that day, sometimes just listening, sometimes engaging his fellow listeners in conversation. He was too enthusiastic ever to sound pedantic. Like everything he had to tell you about music was the most wonderful secret in the world. I didn’t answer him when he told me that Bartók’s compositions were “so logical,” because my first thought was, So was Manson. He must have assumed I was more musically literate than I was—he mustn’t have noticed the guitar. Because for me, there was (and still is) something in the quartets’ apparent lack of logic, their unpredictability, their constant shifting between ideas, as if they were being made up on the spot, that excited me.

Watts also told me that Bartók was the greatest innovator of the string quartet after Beethoven. He brought out the score, which I perused, though I was unable to follow it to the music. Before I left, he showed me the compact disc case: four young men in tuxes, holding up their instruments like proud fisherman showing off their catches of the day. I scribbled down the name.

One day after walking in on “Music for Pure Enjoyment,” I drove over to Discriminator Records (an all-classical music store in Salt Lake, sadly many years gone) and bought the Emerson Quartet’s recording of the six string quartets by Béla Bartók. For a while I listened to a quartet a day. Then I listened to them in pairs, evens and odds, by period, by movement. I quickly learned that I had walked in on the third and fourth quartets, the most dissonant of the bunch, although it’s likely any of them would have affected me in the same way.

Before “Music for Pure Enjoyment,” my understanding of Bartók’s music had been based solely on a few of his orchestral works: The Miraculous Mandarin suite, which had terrified me as a child, and the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Listening to the quartets, however, re-introduced these familiar pieces to me, forcing me to hear them in a new way. Ironically, though Bartók was himself a pianist, and piano was the instrument most familiar to me, his concertos and works for solo piano have taken much longer to grow on me. This may be a broader problem of the percussiveness of the piano in modern music … except that in other modern composers, like Prokofiev and Stravinsky, that very percussiveness often thrills me. Maybe Bartók was just too much the gypsy; I always imagine him carting his wax cylinders between villages in the Carpathians, recording folk music, a task he believed was more important than composing original works. In my favorite photo, he sits at a desk stacked with books, transcribing with his left hand, the horn of a phonograph beside his right ear.


I am sure I’m not the only one who came to know the Emerson Quartet through Bartók, or vice-versa. As the program for their fall 1995 performance of the entire cycle of Bartók’s quartets at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall noted, Bartók has been “something of a cause” for them. They certainly play him as if he were a cause: honed to a near-military rigor, plaintive, demanding. The grueling three-and-a-half hours (with two intermissions) that are required to play all six quartets can only be explained as a cause. I don’t know that they’ve repeated the feat since. Not that they’ve ignored Bartók or anything. They may not play him all the time, or even as often as I’d like; but the quartets are still pretty regularly included in their programs (last August it was the sixth, at the new Alice Tully Hall).

I think discovering the Emerson Quartet represented something else for me, too, something in which Bartók played a role. So many of the classical performers I had listened to were of my parents’ generation or older, because it was my parents’ music, my parents’ records. It was an inherited taste. In my young adulthood, that taste was just beginning to be reshaped under the pressures of new musical discoveries. And now here was a quartet not much older than I, playing a “classical” music that sounded utterly fresh to my ears. So my taste in “classical” music needn’t be preserved in amber, carried around as a sentimental object shaped like home. It was much more dynamic than that. By extension, “classical” music itself needn’t be treated—as its very name damns it to be—like a museum exhibit, endowed with a transcendent authority that simultaneously robs individual pieces of their language. It, too, was something vital, changeable, and renewable.

In the two chances I had to see the Emerson Quartet in Salt Lake, as part of the Chamber Music Society’s series, they followed the standard concert-program formula of two classical or romantic pieces to one modern or contemporary.* At the time, the decision to include any modern or contemporary music on the program seemed daring—the “cause” mentioned in the Avery Fisher Hall program, and the reason performers who play contemporary music are invariably described as its “champions.” But to really explain why I thought this was daring requires a bit more context.

Salt Lake City is much more diverse today (religiously, ethnically, and politically) than when I first moved there. The geography of this diversity, however, is probably about the same as when I left a decade ago: a mostly Hispanic working-class west side; a liberal/radical population ensconced in “the avenues” on the foothills around the university and a few other pockets in or near downtown, mostly transplanted from other places (like California); and a conservative, mostly Mormon and native (or, when not native, Californian or Pacific islander) population living pretty much everywhere else. As an out-of-towner, an east-coaster, and an ersatz New Yorker when I wanted to put on airs, I saw the Emersons as the envoys of a dissonance that the staid harmonies of the Beehive State could not tolerate.

Never mind that I had been introduced to this music in Utah, among music students and teachers who were likely much more conservative than I. Never mind that, relatively speaking, Bartók was a pretty conservative composer—I still didn’t know what “postwar” meant in musical terms, and my fusiony conception of jazz was only just beginning to be unsettled by Monk and Coltrane. Never mind, for that matter, Big Bill Haywood, or Joe Hill. No, never mind any of that: I went not just to hear the Emerson Quartet, but to champion a modern music I was sure many in the audience would find intolerable. I got what I asked for, both times: Bartók’s Quartet No. 4 the first time around, and the second, a 1994 piece by the American composer Ned Rorem, which the quartet had commissioned. Some members of the audience tittered, some crossed their arms like the music was arguing with them, some shook their heads and tugged on their wives’ complacent blouse-sleeves. I left feeling clearly superior, lamenting my extended sojourn among the philistines. Back home—not Jersey, but the avenues—I listened to Bartók while my Deadhead roommate chain-smoked Camels and the snow came down hard outside. He was a communications doctoral student from Michigan who liked to drop acid and listen to two different things on the stereo simultaneously. He thought the Bartók sounded cool. And so together we waved the flag of Difference, waved our freak-flag high, standing in the foothills above the city, and watching the storms roll in over the valley.

Today, I look back at what I had there—not just the exposure to a culture of ideas that came from being a grad student in a school full of brilliant people, but those tightly-knit arts and activist communities, driven together by opposition to a dominant culture that was itself less monolithic than I had presumed it to be—and wonder what I was so anxious about. (I’m sure I was already wondering this the second time I moved away, at the end of 2001; it’s always harder leaving mountains the second time.) In a sense, the Bartók quartets were of a piece with everything I was doing in my classes—Derrida and Beckett, Genet and Baldwin, Bataille and Melville. My standard line about hearing the quartets for the first time was that they rewired my brain. But that was just a particularly dramatic instance of something that, in a more subtle way, was going on the whole time I was in grad school. And I think it is the cumulative impact of a thousand such revelations, from the most mundane to the most mind-shattering, that bonds us to the humanities, to the arts and culture, and makes us as eager as Watts was to try to share that in the classroom. Like the sign said: “Music for Pure Enjoyment.”

* The first half of this post (and a few sentences in the second) is a revision of something I wrote in 1996 or thereabouts, shortly after a performance by the Emerson Quartet in Salt Lake. Although I couldn’t find a place for the descriptive passage that follows in the new version, I enjoyed rediscovering it, and so include it as an addendum: Phillip Setzer, violinist, is petite, curly-haired, and dreamy-eyed, a miniature Tony Curtis. He displays a gravity that sets the tone for the quartet as a whole. From the first moment, at least during the more rhythmic passages, he sways madly. Next to him, Eugene Drucker, the other violinist, is heavier-set and less animated than Mr. Setzer; he keeps one eyebrow raised like Leonard Nimoy, the eye zeroed slantways on the music before him, a cowlick plastered to the eyebrow-side of his forehead, his bow-tie a little crooked. Lawrence Dutton, the violist, is tall and gangly, sized for the viola the way Setzer is for the violin. His hair is streaked with grey, and he doesn’t so much hug his instrument, as the violinists inevitably do, as try to surround it. Rather than swaying, he rocks the instrument on its axis, fingers walking the neck like spiders. I’ve never managed to see Dutton as well as I’d like, because I always choose a seat in the auditorium where he his half-turned from me. But maybe this is only so I can better observe the cellist, David Finckel, who is my favorite. Leaning back with the instrument poised against him, so that it seems like a giant belly, his feet turned out, he is as much the visual as the sonic anchor of the quartet. The posture gives him a deceivingly sated appearance; he is actually the most active member. Because unlike the others, who hardly glance away from their music, Mr. Finckel’s eyes are as mobile as Charlie Chaplin’s. [N.B.: I’m indebted to Gerald Mast for this observation, in Film/Cinema/Movie.] They dart from Dutton to Setzer, Setzer to Drucker, expressing variously the enormity of his undertaking, to a kind of embarrassment at some inaudible mistake, to satisfaction at a well-rendered phrase. Somehow, these four very distinct human beings create a marvelously coherent sound, as if forged from a single consciousness.

Spring Peoples’ Symphony Roundup

This post was intended to be a collection of thumbnail reviews of the spring Peoples’ Symphony Town Hall concerts. During the colder months, these Sunday matinée performances provided the perfect excuse to hop over to the beautiful main reading room of the research library and jot down a few thoughts. But I didn’t feel like writing about all the Sunday concerts … particularly after I spotted The New Yorker’s Alex Ross (I’m pretty sure it was him!) in the lobby during the intermission of the Ebène Quartet’s performance; and rather than put him in a verbal headlock with my own clearly superior review, I figured I’d let him and his struggling little weekly take a crack at it. Then there were a few Saturday shows (held evenings at Washington Irving High School, on 17th Street) that I did feel like writing about. Then I thought, well, I’ll just stick to piano … but that didn’t work either. What follows, then, is a collection of thumbnail reviews without any overarching program. Even “thumbnail” is probably a bad description, unless you have (1) very large thumbs or (2) very long nails.


On January 30th, Hélène Grimaud attacked Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s piano sonata K310 as if it were the work of a high romantic. The sonata defended itself reasonably well, certainly better than many a Mozart sonata might under similar circumstances. Not that I’m one to complain; I often find myself seeking out what is proto-romantic in Mozart; the tempestuous K310 is case in point (the fantasie in C minor, K475 is another). Except that there was something muddled about Grimaud’s execution, too—a combination, I think, of too much pedal and an overemphasis on the left hand. (I felt similarly about her performance of the Liszt B minor sonata, different as that piece is: much of it went by in a blur, like near woods from the window of a speeding train.) That noted, there was a dynamic intensity to her playing I rather admired; she brought something out of that Mozart sonata I hadn’t heard before.

I ended up gravitating toward the modern pieces, one entirely unfamiliar to me (the opus 1 sonata by Alban Berg, a wonderful seething ocean of notes), the other the six Romanian folk dances (BB 68) by Béla Bartók. Grimaud played these dances with a crispness and luminosity that nothing else in the day’s program matched. It made me want to hear whatever recordings she might have of Bartók. (Just one thing: I counted only five. Maybe she was tired from all that Liszt? Indeed, she played no encore.)

Something else refreshing about this concert: the Bartók was last, rather than squished innocuously into the middle of the program. Most concerts would have flipped the order, put the Bartók next to the Berg and ended with the Liszt. Modern music is just too bitter a taste for an audience to leave with. We have to have dessert. I guess this is the reason why—to mix my culinary metaphors—we’re so often offered 20th-century sandwiches on 19th-century bread. I’m reminded of the famous diner scene in Five Easy Pieces, the one where Jack Nicholson can’t get plain wheat toast, and so orders a chicken sandwich and then asks the waitress to hold everything—including the chicken. “You want me to hold the chicken, huh?” she says, arms going akimbo. “I want you to hold it between your knees!” Nicholson spits back.

So it is with the 20th century: many patrons, it seems, would have performers hold the Berg, Bartók and most of what followed between their knees.


Pianist Inon Barnatan appeared at Washington Irving High School’s auditorium on the evening of February 26th with a program unified under the theme “Darkness Visible.” According to the program notes, “All the pieces reflect an awareness of what lies beneath.”

This theme was perhaps most clearly articulated in the Thomas Adès piece of the same name, and in the Schubert sonata with which the program concluded. The former was really revelatory, built around metastasizing trills pierced by stunned notes, single tones that the young pianist put his whole body behind, as if a current had run through him, Kristallnacht phrases giving way to barely-audible rumblings. “Darkness Visible” is only the most recent of several Adès pieces for piano I’ve heard in performance over the previous year or two; they have been consistently impressive.

The Schubert was remarkable in part for the somewhat affectless way Barnatan played the first movement. Once I became accustomed, it allowed me to hear connections to earlier Schubert sonatas that I had not noticed before. I say this in part because, despite its cannibalized final movement—its main theme is a reworking of the second movement of the D 537 sonata, which was never published in Schubert’s lifetime—the last sonatas (the D 958 through 960) have always seemed to me a breed apart, and very much on a par with the better-known late sonatas of Beethoven. What makes the D 959 stand out even from this elect group, however, is the stunning “what lies beneath” moment in the middle of the second movement. The movement begins with two turns through a funereal waltz … when, instead of a new variation, a long, gloaming figure gives way to an eight-note platform for a trill; the left hand mirrors it—and all at once the veil is rent, the score flung about the room, and you’re looking, I don’t know, fifty, a hundred years into music’s future, a death’s head staring back at you from the other side. The only way to restore “equilibrium” is through a series of closed-fist strikes, reminiscent (in this program, together with some of the figures directly preceding it) of the Adés … but as in any narrative, this new equilibrium is of a totally different order than the one with which the movement began, the difference signaled by the interjection of echoing notes, mournful looks backward. Barnatan handled both elements of the movement beautifully, all measured but menaced lyricism at the beginning and end, in the middle all attack and fury.

The rest of the program was similarly striking: the exuberant Ravel valse, Britten and Debussy. I don’t want to end, though, without mentioning the second encore. Did my ear deceive me, or was that a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti? In his biography of Scarlatti (post pending), Ralph Kirkpatrick disparages the (mis)use of Scarlatti’s music as an empty vessel into which a pianist could pour his virtuosity. But for someone who grew up well after Kirkpatrick’s time, when one is much more likely to hear Schubert for an encore than Scarlatti, this was both a pleasant surprise and an unmitigated pleasure.

My one complaint: the auditorium. Understandable that some patrons might have to leave before the end of the Schubert, but they turned it into a sonata for piano and squeaking door. Oy. Then again, what with the “darkness visible” theme, it wasn’t hard to imagine the door as the entrance to a crypt; and all the white heads I could see looking toward the stage turned from a cast for I, Claudius into so many memento mori.


I went to see pianist Garrick Ohlsson a number of years back on the campus of the University of Utah, while I was a graduate student there. I’ve sort of avoided him ever since. My recollection is that his playing was pretty wooden—and this from the first American pianist to win the International Chopin competition (in 1970), and who played an all-Chopin program at the Utah concert, if memory serves. That concert was at the newly-renovated Libby Gardner Concert Hall, in the music building of the university campus. I remember Billy Taylor (R.I.P.), whom I also had the privilege to see there, looking the hall up and down from the stage, saying, almost to himself, “Nice hall, nice hall, nice hall …” And so it is. Ever since hearing Ohlsson there, though, I’ve wondered if the acoustics were to blame, something like that infamous concrete slab under the stage at Carnegie Hall, only removed after nine years of musicians’ complaints.

Ohlsson’s March 6th performance at the (so far as I know) acoustically-unchallenged Town Hall was a chance to re-assess the pianist … and likely my own taste as well. I have to admit that I stayed for only for the first half, though not for anything having to do with Ohlsson. The second half was all Granados, and I’ve been so spoiled by guitar transciptions of this composer’s music that I have a hard time appreciating him on piano. Anyway, given that this was a re-assessment, the all-Chopin first half seemed more than adequate.

The opening nocturne in F was not promising, but Ohlsson loosened up for some of the selections from Opus 25 etudes that followed, particularly the limpidly-executed #1 (“The Wind Harp”), and in the odd, loping, thoroughly enjoyable way he took the #2 for a walk. Overall, he played the etudes more slowly than I am accustomed to hearing them; and between this and his restraint with the pedal, I sometimes got the impression that he was dissecting Chopin rather than interpreting him. The etude #7, for example, depends so much on a dialogue between the hands, as the melodic line, carried by the left, dances around, meets, and sometimes barrels right through the gently persistent chords in the right. In Ohlsson’s hands, however, the piece seemed to lose its way: the two elements never coalesced into a single focus of expression. In the end, the etude sounded ponderous instead of profound.

This was decicedly not the case, though, with his spirited rendition of the awesome polonaise in F sharp minor. Perhaps this piece is simply a more adequate vehicle for his power. The scherzo #1 was similarly exciting—those brazen chords in the finale still clang in my ear’s memory. Overall, I found more to admire in this performance than in the one I heard some ten years ago. Maybe I’m just mature (!) and cosmopolitan (?!) enough now to hear out alternative interpretations.


It was a night of flying hair, horse and human, when the ATOS Trio took the stage at Washington Irving High on April 9th. Nor could this be blamed on the modern music that string players tend to malign for ruining their bows: this was a program firmly in the 18th and 19th century idioms. It was rather the passion and intensity of the performance, the two string players bowing ferociously through Beethoven’s “Ghost” and Dvorák’s third, leaving halos of tugged-out horsehair on the stage around their chairs, string players’ snow angels. I focused much of my attention on the cellist, Stefan Heinemeyer. He appeared to me the essence of the romantic spirit: stocky, fierce, with long black hair and a full beard, and (why not?) “eyes that flashed with fire.” Cellists are often my favorite players to watch in trios and quartets, and this Hoffmannesque fire-spirit and latter-day Samson was at once anchor and mainmast, only resting to comb those great black locks back from his forehead.

All in all an inspired and inspiring performance, matched only by the Jupiter Quartet’s rendition of Beethoven’s Opus 59 No. 1 at the end of the season. As for the ATOS: I wondered if their proximity to the audience made a difference in terms of the amount of energy they were able to communicate. They were forced to play in front of the curtain; the stage itself was occupied by the set of Washington Irving High’s upcoming production of Hair.

And yes, they did oil that goddamned door.


I was pleasantly surprised by pianist Anna Polonsky of the Schumann Trio (Town Hall, April 17th). My experience with trios has been that the piano tends to be the weak link. I’ve often wondered whether there is something generic about this, the piano asked to play a relatively subordinate role. Polonsky showed me that this is not the case: her playing was vigorous enough that I longed to hear her in solo recital. And yet, at no point did I get the sense that she was overstepping her role. Quite the opposite: her playing was dutiful (forgive the domestic metaphor), attentive to Mr Tree’s and McGill’s cues (viola and clarinet, respectively). To each composer she brought the requisite stamp and color: clarity and grace to the Mozart trio, like a good five-paragraph essay; pomp and grandeur to Schumann’s “Märchenerzählungen.”

I only wished they had played Bartók’s “Contrasts”—after all, the Schumann Trio was formed to “explore the rich, and somewhat under-represented, repertoire for clarinet, piano, and viola or violin,” as the program notes said. Just a few nights before, over at Weill Recital Hall (part of Carnegie’s complex of halls, it is an elegant and intimate little chamber venue), I had heard “Contrasts” performed by the Ensemble ACJW, the first time in 15 years I’d heard it live. It would have been a nice opportunity for comparison, particularly since this performance reminded me of how close to cacophony modern music can come. My impression was that these young players slowly brought the piece under control, feeling their way through the second movement and finding their stride in the third.

And as long as I’m writing about the ACJW concert, I might as well come full-circle and say something about Mozart’s K375 serenade for winds that followed it. It’s the sort of charmingly inoffensive dross a Mozart or Haydn could pick out from between his toes whenever the need presented itself. It is aptly named a serenade … though maybe what was most refreshing was coming to it without expectations—one advantage of hearing music you have no purchase on or familiarity with. I enjoyed the symmetry of the instrumentation—two each of clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and horn—and even more, the symmetry of exchange across the semicircle of musicians. Oddly, it reminded me of nothing so much as watching Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.