My Music

Last updated 2006-12-31

As a schoolboy, I spent several years learning to play music. At various times, I played the piano, violin, clarinet and trumpet moderately seriously. A few other instruments were in the "not-so-serious" league.

Unfortunately, since the early Eighties, not much time has remained to play music. Right now, the only musical instrument that I can still wield convincingly is the CD Player.

February 2001 saw a major development in my musical life, when I found a good used piano that would fit into both my tiny house and my tiny budget. I grew up in a house with two pianos (including a Steinway grand), and had really missed not having access to a piano over the past decade. After more than a year of hard work, I was almost ready to play a specific Scarlatti sonata (L.366 or K.1) on the piano when someone is listening! It's been an amazing learning experience for me, as I've had to master the basics of piano playing along with the specifics of this little piece. If you know Domenico Scarlatti's works, you'll realise that I could certainly have made easier choices. However, even my schoolboy command of this piece has given me an amazing sense of personal achievement and satisfaction. I like to tell my friends that I've only had to modify one note to make allowances for my limited technique--the note that says "Allegro"!

November 2005 saw an even more significant event, when I was able to buy the Steinway grand piano from my mother when she vacated her home of more than fifty years for a smaller facility. The piano is a Model O from 1934, in immaculate condition. While neither my house nor my budget could easily accommodate the piano, I've decided that it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that having this piano is more important than having space to sit! I've started learning a Paderewski minuet that my father used to play us when I was a child, on this same piano.

I now have the piano, a trumpet, a violin and a cello in the music room, and occasionally to play a few notes on each of them. My trumpet playing is not quite back to its former glory, but my daughter has recently started hogging the piano when she is here, so I have to find something else to play.

While the piano is reasonably, well, piano (sic), a trumpet is by no means a quiet instrument. It's a good thing that I live in a low density housing area!

Music recordings are relatively new to me; I only ever owned one vinyl record. However, in recent years I've taken great pleasure in my expanding music collection.

My collection would probably be regarded as somewhat esoteric by most standards, containing as it does a collection of classical and popular genres that might be considered as not necessarily belonging together. The classical group includes Albeniz, Bach (both JS and PDQ!), Balakirev, Beethoven, Berlioz, Bizet, Brahms, De Sarasate, Dvorak, Elgar, Granados, Grieg, Handel, Haydn, Hummel, Lalo, Mozart, Paganini, Puccini, Ravel, Saint-Saens, Schubert, Schumann, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Vivaldi and Wagner, along with a string of others.

My collection includes a lot of piano music. I guess this mere fact represents a triumph of openness over prejudice, because years of being exposed to schoolgirl piano renditions in our household didn't exactly leave me enamoured with the instrument. However, in the hands of a Gilels or Ashkenazy, the piano provides an unequalled scope of expression, and a number of composers have exploited that scope to stunning effect.

A delightful recent discovery is Johann Nepomuk Hummel. I found myself sitting up and taking notice a few times when hearing unknown music on our local classical music station, and then hearing them announce that the music was by Hummel. I finally managed to squeeze a few recordings into my budget, and was even more impressed than I'd expected. His A Minor Piano Concerto (Op. 85) probably rates as my all-time favourite piece of music. Even Lisa likes it to the extent that she requested an encore the first time I played it to her. She'd never done that before, so it took me a few minutes to regain my composure, but she'd really managed to make my day! She subsequently developed a habit of asking for "that fast piano" whenever we were in the car together.

Hummel moved from his native Czech village to Vienna at age eight, and spent his life there as a piano virtuoso and prolific composer. Although he is now virtually unknown, he was a student of Mozart and Haydn, and taught the likes of Mendelssohn. Chopin is said to have studied his piano scores intensively, and John Field is said to have been a great supporter. Hummel wrote a guide to playing the piano that spans two dozen volumes, and became standard fare for more than a century. He is credited for introducing the confusion about trills that persists to this day, by suggesting that instrumental trills should be treated differently from vocal trills, and start on the note itself rather than a semitone above.

I'm told that most classical pianists and trumpeters cringe when they hear Hummel's name; his work is not for faint-hearted performers. Perhaps this fact, more than any other, has prevented Hummel from gaining wider acceptance. Stephen Hough, who plays what is widely regarded as the best recorded rendition of the A minor and B minor piano concertos, says that tackling the script for the first time gave him the feeling of staring into a shark's jaws, and being confronted with rows and rows of teeth...

I discovered in early 2002 that I'm not the only one to rate this recording of the Hummel concerti so highly. In the 2001 Awards Issue of Gramophone, there is an article called Take Five, in which five great piano recordings are discussed. The article looks back at five all-time greats, in which the Hough recording is included. The idea is to see if these great recordings have stood the test of time. The reviewer starts by saying that they did indeed "come up as if new-minted, their status unchallenged". After discussing exceptional recordings by Pletnev, Pollini and Kovacevich, the reviewer waxes lyrical about Hough's piece: "Stephen Hough's debut [...] is set even further apart from all previous discs of these works and, one imagines, from any future recordings. For here is playing of an astonishing poetic verve and scintillation, and if the 'boggle factor' is high (try the photo-finish to the A minor Concerto, where seemingly thousands of notes teem and cascade with an almost palpable brilliance), any notion of a composer who merely bridged the gap between Mozart and Chopin writing unmemorable chandelier music is swept into oblivion. Again, if the overall effect is like a spangled trapeze artist flying high above the crowd without a safety net, the finesse in both slow movements is even more remarkable. Here, [...] Hough spins long, delicately inflected lines with all the skill of a great singer-pianist. One returns to this debut of debuts with a renewed sense of enchantment and amazement." I do get the general impression that the reviewer is as impressed as I am!

Apart from the Hough recording, another wonderful sample of Hummel's brand of piano music is available on the budget label Naxos. While their version of his concerti is not the greatest, there is a set of three piano sonatas (Opus 13, 20 and 81) that can only be described as delightful.

The popular (?) stuff includes everything from Shirley Bassey and George Benson to ZZ Top, with even the odd Pavlov's Dog thrown in. Does that name ring a bell? I'll risk dating myself by admitting that there's a lot of stuff from the Seventies.

And then there's that Vollenweider album. Its easy-listening jazz harp music reminds me of those evenings in the music room on my farm, listening to music to the background of lions roaring outside the fence...

I plan to find time in my schedule in the not-too-distant future to re-learn the trumpet to a sufficient level to hold my own in a group again, and to find a bunch of guys and/or gals with whom I can make some music. Perhaps the most enjoyable facet of my music making, many moons ago, was jamming with a small group of Gospel musos. I'd love to make it happen again, one day.

Beethoven or Mozart?

In my early Twenties, I spent a lot of time listening to Mozart. Surveys continue to show that Mozart is the classical music audience's perennial favourite, so I was not alone. However, these days Mozart gathers dust on my shelf while I explore the mind-boggling classical repertoire.

I would imagine that there is only one composer whose works I never ignore for too long--Beethoven. Why? Perhaps I've learned to associate with him a lot more closely. In some ways, even though Mozart and Beethoven were contemporaries and both produced the majority of their output in Vienna, they could not have been more different.

Mozart was a shameless hedonist, who effortlessly produced prolific quantities of exquisite music while spending much of his time in the taverns with the socialites of Vienna. The subjects he chose for his operas were often off-colour, or worse. Even by today's standards, some of his librettos would not be out of place in a soap opera. We all know the caricature of an aged Antonio Salieri, who formed the centrepiece for the unforgettable "Amadeus" movie. The old man blamed God for entrusting that peerless talent to such a little twit. Perhaps there was more than just an element of truth to Salieri's supposed gripe. The story goes that Mozart never made corrections to his copy, mentally assembling that music before committing it to paper. As a child, he copied down complex music after a single hearing. Despite times of severe hardship, his music never wavered from the stellar standard it maintained. His output is matched by very few composers, with Vivaldi, Haydn, Bach and Scarlatti Junior perhaps being the only ones.

Beethoven was almost exactly the opposite. He was an intense and tempestuous man, given to long walks in nature rather than the taverns. He had an exaggerated sense of responsibility that almost led to his undoing when he accepted charge of his nephew Karl, a rascal that offered very little understanding in return. He worked and re-worked on every piece, and left more than eighty notebooks full of sketches in preparation for the less than 200 pieces he finally published. There are four published versions of the overture for his only opera, with all four being respectable but with only the last version meeting his exacting personal standards.

There is a reason why Beethoven wrote only one opera. He insisted that his opera must be about a noble subject, and was not allowed to include any immorality. He searched for years for a suitable script, and settled on an early version of what we now know as Fidelio. It had to be substantially re-worked, and even now the plot features holes that one could drive a truck through. However, it does deal with undying marital fidelity in the face of overwhelming odds, a subject very different from the decadence in Mozart's works.

Beethoven's output was paltry compared to Mozart's: Nine symphonies and six piano concerti as opposed to Mozart's forty-odd symphonies and two dozen piano concerti, 32 piano sonatas and a bit of chamber music, a single violin concerto and a single opera that is seldom performed as opposed to Mozart's prolific output that fills opera stages to this day.

Yet his influence is awesome. He almost single-handedly slammed the door on the Classical period, and welcomed the Romantic era into the music world. His ninth symphony almost invented a new form. His single violin concerto is regarded as a classic. His symphonies discouraged a generation of composers from attempting the genre, as the last word seemed to have been spoken.

Beethoven's intensity pervades almost every work. His changing mental outlook with the onset of his deafness can almost be felt in his later works. His intensity is almost unpalatable in his later works, relegating some of his late piano sonatas to the realm of connoisseurs only.

Why does he grasp my imagination, and that of countless others, the way he does? Is it his very human struggle to express his feelings, rather than just churn out beautiful music? Is it his endless struggle to get everything just right, with its fair share of failures? Is it the fact that he chose to disregard convention, refusing to bow before the status quo when society demanded that he adhere to the social caste he had been born into? Is it the fact that we're dealing with genius that was clearly made, not just born? Is it the fact that he was able to carve a niche as a freelance musician, rather than the servant every one of his predecessors had been? Is it his insistence on doing the right thing, even if it meant that he could only produce one opera?

It's hard to tell, but at least exploring the options is in itself an ongoing thrill, providing hours of joy and discovery.

About musical tastes

I've thought a lot about musical tastes over the years. Perhaps you'd like to browse through the resulting theory.

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