Tag Archive: music

Schoenberg's "Gehendes Selbst-Portrait" / "Going Self-Portrait," 1911. All images courtesy of the Arnold Schönberg Centre, Vienna*

In a prior piece on Alban Berg (1885-1935) I pointed to a 1910 painting of the composer.  (You can click here to view it.)  The painter was Berg’s composition teacher, Arnold Schoenberg.  The idea there was that the portrait leaves us with a faint trace of life in pre-war Vienna – a period which, as Stefan Zweig idealized it in The World of Yesterday, was for the citizens of that city an “age of security.”

In later letters, Schoenberg would also recall the period as a time of peace and pause, before that age of war and unrest when twentieth century European history seesawed into darkness.  With a view to the composer’s creative life, the pre-war years find Schoenberg undertaking his earliest experiments with atonal composition – listen to the Six Little Piano Pieces of 1911, for instance – and in this respect mark his first soundings into the uncharted depths of the future.  But they were also the years in which he experimented most concentratedly with painting.

Enter Schoenberg the painter.

"Blue Self-Portrait" (February 1910)

From 1908-1912 Schoenberg produced paintings and sketches of distinctive style.  While he was hesitant to consider himself part of an established school of any kind, his work is generally recognized to orbit the Expressionist movement.  For a short time, Schoenberg even belonged to Wassily Kandinsky’s Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) group, a circle of friends who held that the ultimate aim of art was to seize and give expression to the spiritual dimensions of experience.

In a telling 1911 letter to Kandinsky, Schoenberg expresses his belief in the unconscious character of artistic perception:

"Hass" / "Hate" (October 1910)

“. . . I am sure that our work has much in common – and indeed in the most important respects: In what you call the ‘unlogical’ and I call the ‘elimination of the conscious will in art’. . . .  Every formal procedure which aspires to traditional effects is not completely free from conscious motivation.  But art belongs to the unconscious! One must express oneself!  Express oneself directly!  Not one’s taste, or one’s upbringing, or one’s intelligence, knowledge or skill.  Not all these acquired characteristics, but that which is inborn, instinctive. . . . But whoever is capable of listening to himself, recognizing his own instincts, and also engrossing himself reflectively in every problem, will not need such crutches.  One does not need to be a pioneer to create in this way, only a man who takes himself seriously – and thereby takes seriously that which is the true task of humanity in every intellectual or artistic field: to recognize, and to express what one has recognized!!!  This is my belief.”**

In this way, many of Schoenberg’s paintings aim less to represent the world in its outward semblance than to capture things as they “really” are on the subjective plane: the world refracted through the lens of the inner eye.

"Denken" / "Thinking" (October 1910)

Consider “Thinking,” the painting immediately above.  It’s just one expression of thinking in its most immediate or unconscious sense: the subjective experience of thinking in a manner that’s unmediated by the concepts that ordinarily order, the lines that frequently frame conscious thought.  It’s a glimpse of the mind’s eye, the artist’s experience freed from the terms of traditional perspective.

"Blauer Blick" / "Blue Gaze" (1910)

If the perspective in Schoenberg’s paintings feels askew, it’s because artistic expression in the expressionistic mode isn’t meant to capture the world as it outwardly appears to us through our sensory faculties.   This orientation, like art itself, is ultimately born of the unconscious.  Freed from both the mind-forged manacles of conscious thought and the shackles of sensory perception, the objects of the external world fade.

Schoenberg’s Gazes

What is experience without the tether of the senses?  Schoenberg’s mesmerizing set of visions and gazes gives us some feeling for his conception of it.  Nature abandoned, the artist inwardly encounters gazes rather than faces:

"Blick" / "Gaze" (May 1910)

“I painted gazes . . . .  That is something that only I could have done, for it is in my nature and is fully opposed to the nature of an actual painter.  I have never seen faces, but rather, where I have seen into others’ eyes, only their gazes.  From this is also happens that I can recreate the gaze of a man.  A painter, however, captures with a glance the entire human being – I only his soul.”***

According to Schoenberg’s view of artistic experience, at least, these gazes subsist on a plane of perception where everything is illuminated by the light of the unconscious.  They are visions – let’s call them innervisions – beyond the pale of the senses.  It isn’t important whether Schoenberg’s conception of artistic perception is wholly accurate; more crucial is the recognition that experience (both conscious and unconscious) is rich and layered, that there are many different ways of perceiving it – and that art is one very real part of it.

What’s ultimately important is Schoenberg’s belief that the vision of the creative artist isn’t veiled by custom.  Instead, one task of his imaginative work is to pierce the fabric of convention – a life of humdrum habit – and to tune in to a key of experience to which we customarily grow deaf.  In “listening to himself,” the artist’s aim is to probe the innermost reaches of the self and to translate that which he inwardly hears into a form that we, the onlookers, can outwardly witness.

Schoenberg’s paintings stand as glimpses into the creative depths of one of the twentieth century’s great composers: innervisions of a man who strove for art that was decidedly more than meets the eye.

"Christus" / "Christ" (October 1910)


References and notes:

  • All images appear courtesy of the Arnold Schönberg Centre in Vienna.  You can visit them here for a “complete printed overview of Schönberg’s pictoral works.”
  • **  In a letter of January 24, 1911, A Schoenberg Reader, edited by Joseph Auner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 90-91.
  • ***  My translation.  The original German reads:

“Ich habe Blicke gemalt […] Das ist etwas, was nur ich getan haben konnte, denn es ist aus meiner Natur heraus und ist der Natur eines wirklichen Malers vollkommen entgegengesetzt.  Ich habe niemals Gesichter gesehen, sondern, da ich den Menshen ins Auge gesehen habe, nur ihre Blicke.  Daher kommt es auch, dass ich den Blick eines Menschen nachmachen kann.  Ein Maler aber erfasst mit einem Blick den ganzen Menschen – ich nur seine Seele.”

(Cited in Elmar Budde, “‘Ut musica pictura – ut pictura musica’: Musik und Bild. Ein Rückblick nach vorn zu Arnold Schönberg,” in Der Maler Arnold Schönberg: Bericht zum Symposium, 11-13 September 2003.  Published 2004 by Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Wien, Wissenschaftszentrum Arnold Schönberg.)

David Hasselhumbug - "The Night Before Christmas"

Christmas time is here, and with it the bescrooged revelation that people will use the festive season as an excuse to listen to some of the most torturous music to have been conjured in the human brain.  We should all, of course, be free to listen to whatever we feel pleases us most, and I have no trouble watching people listen to music – whatever the kind – on headphones.  But there’s a marked difference between the plotted murder in a private study and the circus of a public execution in town square, and one problem is that prefab holiday schmaltz greets you in the most public of spaces.  Picture Christmas music extending its net over the crowds in a shopping mall food court.  Merry humbug!

Someone was kind enough to put together this humorous pictorial run-through of the “Fifty Worst Christmas Albums of All Time.”  There’s something wowingly warped about so many of the albums pictured there – in the twilight zone manner, say, of North Korean propaganda posters.  So it has become my seasonal obligation to remember that two of the more otherworldly artists on that list – Hasselhoff and Heino – are not the only words that begin with the letter H.


Happily, like Jacob Marley, Hasselhoff’s career as a pop artist is as “dead as a door-nail” – “a coffin-nail” – and future generations will chiefly remember the ghostly Heino for his memorable album art.

(Allow me here to link parenthetically to one of the most remarkable and utterly confounding holiday moments, Christmas with Heino, which is seemingly without parallel and possibly the stuff of pure transcendence.)

Jest aside, Christmas in Germany has not always been all Heino and Hasselhoff.  It was after all a German (and another “H”), Georg Friedrich Handel, who with the Messiah in 1742 gave the English-speaking world its most famous choral Christmas work.

Since Handel’s Messiah continues to fill concert houses the world-over, I want to point casually to three other masterworks (of German origin) that could be as mandatory a part of one’s holiday season as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” album, and the act of routinely spiking the eggnog.

I. Michael Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning (~1620)

Praetorius (1571–1621), possibly the first historically significant composer of Lutheran church music, put together his Christmas mass at some point towards the end of his life.  In a recording by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort we have one of the more remarkable performances of Christmas music on the market.  The album is one in a line of many McCreesh projects that attempt to reconstruct the experience of being in the particular time and place of a work’s genesis.

Listen here for a taste of what it might have been like to attend a Lutheran mass on Christmas morning in 1620 Dresden.  It’s an ambitious recording that breathes history, and as a musical experience, it’s incredible.

II. Heinrich Schütz: Weinachtshistorie (1664)

Schütz (1585–1672) was nearly 80 years of age when he published his Christmas Story in 1664.  As a young man, Schütz had studied under Gabrieli (and later Monteverdi) in Venice, the then-centre of European music.  In an attempt to write music fit for the ostentatious interior of St. Mark’s basilica, Gabrieli had taken to writing music on a grand scale: Dividing his choir and instrumentalists among the upper galleries on all sides of the room, he inaugurated the so-called polychoral style.  Schütz returned to Germany, heavily influenced by the musical life of Catholic Venice, and he took up work principally in Dresden, where he devoted his remaining decades to the composition of sacred music.  Like Luther, Schütz freed up the German language, and his Christmas Story of 1664 – which you can listen to here – is a fine and festive example of his art.

III. Johann Sebastian Bach: Christmas Oratorio (1734)

And where else to end this quick jaunt through Luther-land than with Bach (1685-1750), to whom all roads seem to lead?  You can listen to the opening movement of his Christmas Oratorio here.  Anyone who’s visited Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche) won’t have difficulty picturing the periwiged Bach leading his musicians on a Christmas afternoon in 1734:  Sunlight warms the stained-glass windows; a seasonal, communal calm meets the crisp air.  And then a thought – the thought of Heino, of Hasselhoff, creeps in.  Humbug!

Johann Sebastian Humbug (stained-glass window of Bach in the Thomaskirche, Leipzig.

Bach Humbug!  Merry, merry Humbug!
Suggested Classical Recordings:
  • Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning (Paul McCreesh & the Gabrieli Consort; Archiv, 1994).
  • Heinrich Schütz: Weihnachts-Historie (Rene Jacobs & the Concerto Vocale; Hamonia Mundi, 2011).
  • J.S. Bach: Weihnachtsoratorium / Christmas Oratorio (Nikolaus Hanoncourt & the Concentus Musicus Wien (Teldec, 1993).
Very Special Mention:
  • Vince Guaraldi Trio: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1965).

Arnold Schoenberg: Brilliant Corners

Arnold Schoenberg, 1935 (photograph by John Gutmann)

I’ve known people who gravitate to Schoenberg’s music in the way that one might to a burning building.  In my own apartment, Schoenberg (1874-1951) is pretty much the stuff of contraband, alongside Albert Ayler, Steely Dan and a host of others in whose music I take great pleasure but am forced to enjoy either on headphones or on the sneak.  My wife wants to assassinate the sax player on “Deacon Blues.”  My two Ayler albums have mysteriously vanished.  And if they could rig sound systems such that they would explode with the playback of a twelve-tone composition, my guess is that I’d be the unwilling owner of at least two.  It can take effort and patience to orient oneself in Schoenberg’s angled world.  But why should that keep us from listening?

What does it mean to orient oneself in listening?

Listen here to Glenn Gould in a performance of one of Schoenberg’s earliest experiments with so-called “atonal” composition, op.11.  It was Gould who once speculated that a child raised on a remote mountainside, and exposed to nothing but music without tonal centre, would still manage to find some kind of beauty in it.  There would be no equivalent measure by which to perceive what we, by force of habit, have come to call “dissonance.”  There would be no default point of vantage from which to consider that particular aspect of the world disorienting or unnatural.  The youngster would still, like us, be a creature of nature and of convention – just differently positioned, the music differently slanted.  If disorientation is everywhere our default condition, if we are born into the world without a fixed point of reference, then it becomes a matter of pure circumstance as to the formal means by which we come to arrange it.  Who has turned us around like this?

There’s a certain freedom in Gould’s line of thinking.  Music can challenge, and orienting oneself in listening can be a healthy fight for perspective.  Music, once impenetrable, can illuminate.

In an undated notebook entry from his last years, Schoenberg takes up the conventional association of music and the beautiful:

“My subject: beauty and logic in music, shall deal with the mutual relation between beauty and logic in music.  Its main purpose shall be to dethrone beauty as much as possible as a serious factor in the creation of music.

It shall be assumed that it is neither the aim of a composer to produce beauty nor is a feeling of beauty a producing ‘agent’ in his imagination.  It might and often does occur that, in spite of an occupation with a different direction, the complete work produces a feeling of beauty in a listener.”*

You could say that, for Schoenberg, the musical idea is everywhere greater than the mere notion of truth or beauty.  Conceptions of truth and beauty – and with them, musical styles, tastes – change.  Invention does not.  So long as we’re around, the musical idea, the human urge to shape sound in space, will subsist absolutely.

My own gateway to Schoenberg’s music was his only piano concerto.  You can listen here to one of the great living pianists, Mitsuko Uchida, reflect on her experience with the concerto, which she says “involves an enormous amount of brainwork . . . .  You must be stubborn to want to learn it.” While talking about music may not always be like dancing about architecture, nothing can replace listening: So here is the concerto in full.

Listening, like learning, can require a good deal of what Uchida calls “devotion.”  My own experience has been that the character of a work will reveal itself naturally, but generally with repeated listening.  A first listen is very much like attempting to view a mural at arm’s distance.  Every successive listen is a step back, and eventually, some kind of whole comes into view.

Orienting myself in this way, I’ve come to find that where Schoenberg’s world is loaded with sharp angles, it is also full of brilliant corners.


* Quote taken from A Schoenberg Reader: Documents of a Life, edited by Joseph Auner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984),  p. 326.  Sourced from archival material at the Arnold Schoenberg Centre in Vienna (T67.02, Notebook III).

Two Choice Recordings

  • Schoenberg: Piano Works – Glenn Gould (2CD reissue on Sony, 1995)
  • Piano Concerto etc. – Mitsuko Uchida (with Pierre Boulez & the Cleveland SO; on Philips, 2001)

Edwin Fischer (1886-1960)

My grandfather, who was a disarmingly intelligent but warm and selfless storyteller (not pictured), once told me of a concert he attended at some point in his youth.  The recital took place in Düsseldorf, the city of his birth, and the pianist was Edwin Fischer.  I can’t be sure of the exact date of the performance, but my struggling sense is that it would have taken place somewhere between 1918 and 1925.  To insist on nailing down the specifics would be to crucify the moment, since so much of the meaning we draw from the past takes shape through a hazy layering of myth and fact.

“all the old accumulated rubbish-years which we call memory, the recognizable I, but changing from phase to phase as the butterfly changes once the cocoon is cleared, carrying nothing of what was into what is…” ~ William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

My grandfather never relayed to me the details of the program itself, but one thing stuck with him for decades: Fischer had the younger members of the audience join him on stage.  He invited them to gather around the piano to watch him perform an encore.  With that warm gesture my grandfather found himself next to one of the old masters of the piano, youthfully spellbound by a performance of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Minor (BWV 849)  from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Listen here to Fischer’s 1933 studio recording of that very piece.

The prelude is all beauty in a minor mode; the fugue, which eventually reaches out with its “trumpet call” (4.44), is a darkish gem.  My grandfather always singled out that moonstone as his most treasured of the “48.”

In 1960, some three to four decades after that recital in Düsseldorf, Fischer’s renowned student, Alfred Brendel, would reverently recollect that “with Fischer, one was in more immediate contact with the music: there was no curtain before his soul when he communicated with the audience.”*

When I listen to Fischer’s recording of the C-sharp Minor Prelude and Fugue, I suppose that a “curtain” of some sort does fall.  But it’s a curtain drawn by the invariably limited reach of memory, drawn between me and the faded world of a childhood in Düsseldorf, between me and a Germany pre-‘33.


Recommended Recordings:

  • Edwin Fischer: Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 & 2 (EMI).  You can read a review of this CD issue here.  These are the very first recordings of the complete “48.”  The same performances have been reissued on the Naxos Historical label, but I haven’t heard them and am unable to speak to their sound quality.


* Quote taken from Alfred Brendel’s “Edwin Fischer: Remembering My Teacher” (1960), published in Thoughts and Afterthoughts but legally fetched online.

First Snapshot: Landowska and Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana (1907)

A significant 1907 black and white photograph captures a young Wanda Landowska seated at the piano.  Behind her stands Russian literary giant, Leo Tolstoy, in the Cossack garb of his later years.  The photograph was taken at the author’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana, by his wife, Sophia.  That would have been just three years before Tolstoy would leave both his wife and estate behind, ultimately dying of pneumonia in a lonely railway station of the remote Russian countryside.

The image of Tolstoy in his last moments is a lasting, if silent one: the final flash of a life that was everywhere marked by an introspective struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of human existence.  In his A Confession of 1882, you can get Tolstoy’s own account of his spiritual development.

The 1907 photograph also takes on something of a resonant note in the context of Landowska’s own life.  For it was one of the few personal possessions she could bring with her to America, a few months after the 1940 approach of the invading Nazi forces forced her to flee her adopted home of Saint-Leu-la-Forêt.  It was there, on the outskirts of Paris, that Landowska had founded her Temple de la Musique Ancienne, her school and concert house.  Her longtime student, Denis Restout, recounts that the Nazis looted all of Landowska’s treasure – her numerous instruments, her thousands of books and manuscripts – and left not a wreck behind.

Second Snapshot: Landowska's Wartime Scarlatti

In one of Landowska’s many 1940 recordings, we have one of the more remarkable musical documents of the era.  In the studio Landowska performs one of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas.  In the distance we hear the sounds of bomb or artillery fire as the Nazis move in on the French capital.

You can listen to it here.

The bombs fall at approximately the two-minute mark.  As the studio engineers run for cover, an extraordinarily concentrated Landowska completes the performance without missing a beat.  Amazing.

That recording must have taken place only hours before Landowska would leave France behind.  In that sense, and like her cherished photograph of 1907, it anchors a would-be fleeting moment.

These two snapshots of Landowska’s life remind me of the power of such historical documents: They capture, they anchor moments.  And in allowing us to hear echoes of the past, they anchor us as well.

Landowska at her Pleyel harpsichord in Saint-Leu-la-Forêt (1933).

In November of 1933, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska put to wax the very first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  It’s true that the Goldbergs, at least since the time of Glenn Gould’s historic piano recording for Columbia in 1955, have been widely recorded by pianists and harpsichordists alike.  In fact, the market has been so inundated with stellar recordings of the Golbergs that I sometimes catch myself wishing that the record industry – to summon but one of the mercilessly many, inane slogans from the business world – would diversify its portfolio.  But I know that it’s ultimately an embarrassment of riches, and I remind myself that in 1933, before the Goldbergs met the gramophone (and well before the levy broke) the public had very little opportunity to hear this great music.  Audiences, for that matter,  had very little exposure to the harpsichord, Landowska’s ultimate instrument of choice.  Peering into the early twentieth century, we find a time in which the harpsichord was perceived as a relic of a bygone age.  We find an era in classical music history that is often characterized as the golden age of the piano.

Landowska was instrumental in reviving the harpsichord as something other than a mere museum piece.  By the time of her first recording of the Goldbergs, Landowska had already publicly championed the instrument for close to three decades.  She had scoured Europe for clavichords, harpsichords and examples of other period keyboard instruments.  Her years of study of the keyboard music and literature of the preceding centuries culminated in 1909 with the publication of La musique ancienne.  Shortly thereafter, she commissioned the Pleyel company to build her a personalized instrument that was capable of greater dynamic range and tonal colour than more conventional, less muscled harpsichords.  She exhibited four such Pleyels to American audiences during a tour of the US in 1923.

You can hear one in action here in a sampling of her Paris Goldberg sessions of the subsequent decade.

Landowska’s performances, like her writings, were positioned and persuasive, and their impact on music culture was both immediate and sustained.  As a result, the harpsichord came to be resurrected as the instrument on which to perform Bach “properly.”  So considerable was the move to “proper” – which is to say “historically informed” –  performance practice that pianists were reluctant to go near the music of the periwigged one.  (Edwin Fischer and Claudio Arrau in the ‘30s, and Rosalyn Tureck shortly thereafter, are three of the more remarkable exceptions to that lamentable trend.)

The Harpsichord: “the sound of two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm.” ~ Sir Thomas Beecham

In Landowska’s wake came the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) brigade.  Its proponents, for whom I’ve coined the term HIPsters, followed Landowska in holding that music should be played in accordance with the standards of performance – and on the instruments – of the historical period in which it was composed.  Now it’s all in good fun that I call them HIPsters here; and I recognize that their opinions are rich and varied, if sometimes prone to dogmatism.  I’ll write more on another day, and I mention them here for a simple reason:

In following through on Landowska’s contention that musical interpretation should everywhere be informed by the principles of performance of a given historical period, HIPsters came to believe that Landowska’s own interpretations of Bach’s music were bygone and inauthentic – which is to say not “historically informed.”  Writing of the Pleyel and its chief ambassador, one writer tells it as he sees it:

“Undue emphasis was laid on the ability of the harpsichord to vary its tone color. . . .  These instruments produced an enormous variety of sounds, all bad.  However, Pleyel was blessed by the genius of a young Polish pianist named Wanda Landowska, who in a transcendent exercise of pure imagination found a way of using even the Pleyel to make viable music.  Thus, for nearly fifty years the movement to revive the literature of the harpsichord was to be dominated by this perversity.”*

The Pleyel was a harpsichord in name, perhaps, but it had the capacity for sonics that were not proper to keyboard instruments of Bach’s day.  Some chose to label it a “perversity,” and found equally perverse Landowska’s approach to Bach’s music: Landowska, high-priestess of Baroque music, played it like a hopeless Romantic (or so some thought).

“You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” ~ Wanda Landowska

It’s true that Landowska was also sometimes guilty of taking a firmer-than-necessary stance on the nature of correct or proper performance.  But the mythologized words above, so often taken out of context and even falsely attributed, were actually said in jest during an interchange with cello great Pablo Casals in 1941.

Landowska am Cembalo ("Landowska at the Harpsichord") 1920

In La music ancienne of 1909, published in English some 15 years later as Music of the Past, Landowska attempts to debunk “the sorry legislators of taste” who, in the name of progress, undersold the harpsichord and the musical riches of a bygone age: “In all times, not only the mediocre minds, but sometimes the cultivated musicians as well, have imagined that their art had surpassed that of their predecessors.”**

It turned out that in dusting off the harpsichord, Landowska had inadvertently laid the ground for a school of Historically Informed Performance that would imagine that its art had eclipsed her own.

Myths of progress, myths of “proper” performance: In the extreme, they run counter to the notion of art as something in motion, bound to unfold in ways unforeseen.

In coming to terms with the history of music, it’s as important to look ahead as it is to look back.  And that, in my view, is yet another expression of artistry that is truly historically informed.  If we can draw lines, if we can impose boundaries, then I see them as traced in sand rather than as set in stone.  I still believe that the history of music is guided by a principle of process rather than of progress.

Landowska’s 1933 recording of the Goldberg Variations – a work which she called “a secular temple of absolute music” – is an invitation to think it through all over again.


Recommended Recording:

  • J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations / Italian Concerto / Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (1933-36) – Wanda Landowska, Pleyel Harpsichord – Naxos Records. (More info here.)

Harpsichord Comparison:

You can sound out for yourselves the differences between Landoswka’s Pleyel harpsichord and a period harpsichord from Bach’s day by clicking on the two great performances below.  (Remember that in terms of audio fidelity, the Landowska has the disadvantage of some sixty years):

  • Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue – Landowska, Pleyel Harpsichord
  • Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue – Christophe Rousset, Harpsichord (Henri Hamsch, Paris 1751)


* Quote taken from Frank Hubbard, “Reconstructing the Harpsichord,” in The Historical Harpsichord I, edited by H. Schott (New York, 1984), p. 8.

** Wanda Landowska, Music of the Past, translated by William Aspenwall Bradley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924), p. 5.

Alban Berg published his first and only piano sonata (Opus 1)  in 1910.  He was twenty-five years of age and finishing up a lengthy period of study with Arnold Schoenberg.

I often think of Berg’s sonata as one good entry point to the thick terrain of 20th century classical music.  It rethinks the sonata as traditionally conceived, over the course of a single movement.  If there’s a steady feeling that the centre might not hold, the music never slips out of orbit.

Debussy once suggested that, after Beethoven, the sonata was no longer a valid form of composition.  Whether he meant it absolutely or rhetorically is a matter of some question; but I take his point.  In Berg’s sonata we find still another considered position.  For it stands at a threshold, at the threshold of atonality.  While it may not represent a “schooled” breaking with the music of the past, you never get the sense that its young composer is anything but open to the possible shape of music to come.  In the liner notes to his Carnegie Hall Concert (Teldec Classics, 2002) pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard calls it an “odd” work that “suggests a reflection on what the sonata has been and might become.”

You can watch Canadian pianist, Marc-Andre Hamelin perform Berg’s sonata live here.

It was Berg’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, who painted a well-known portrait of the young composer.  It dates from 1910, the same year as the publication of the piano sonata.  Here, as above, it would appear that Berg was fond of leaning his chin on his clenched right hand.

Schoenberg's portrait of Alban Berg (1910).

In the bigger picture, Schoenberg’s portrait of Berg stands as a snapshot of pre-World War I Vienna – a lost world that Berg’s friend, author Stefan Zweig, thoughtfully described as “the age of security.”  It is, as the title of Zweig’s great autobiography has it, The World of Yesterday.

I sometimes think about the young Berg in that time and place, at the threshold of tomorrow, before the monumental mess of 20th century European history.  For it’s in that historical context that his piano sonata – like Schoenberg’s painting of the same year – provides us with an important portrait of the artist as a young man.


A special note on Yvonne Loriod (1924 – 2010):

I’ve only recently discovered Yvonne Loriod’s sizzling version of the Berg sonata.  Loriod, most often remembered as interpreter and wife of Olivier Messiaen, died in May of last year.  It’s in memory of her that I link to her special interpretation of Berg’s Opus 1 here.

Recommended Recordings of the Berg Sonata:

  • Glenn Gould – Berg, Krenek, Berg, Debussy & Ravel (Columbia, 1958; Sony, 1995).
  • Maurizio Pollini – Debussy: 12 Etudes – Berg: Sonata. Op. 1 (DG, 1994).
  • Mitsuko Uchida – Schoenberg: Piano Concerto – Berg: Sonata, Op. 1, etc. (Philips, 2001).
  • Pierre-Laurent Aimard – At Carnegie Hall – Berg: Sonata, Op. 1 – Beethoven: Appassionata, etc. (Teldec Classics, 2002).

Portrait of Rachmaninov, by Konstantin Somov, 1925. (Source: New World Encyclopedia.)

“Don’t get sentimental / It always ends up drivel” ~Radiohead, “Let Down,” OK Computer

A recent blog post on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio 2 website invites readers to consider the merits of Rachmaninov’s music.   “Shamelessly romantic or gushy sentimentality?” it asks.

It’s true that the integrity, the worth of Rachmaninov’s music has often been questioned, despite – or maybe simply because of? – its immense popularity.  In his own lifetime, Rachmaninov was persistently perceived to be out of fashion, a nostalgic throwback to the music of the 19th century.  And as in life, so in death: Rachmaninov has since had plenty of post-mortem opportunity to spin in his grave in response to the criticism that his music is lightweight, syrupy or Hollywoodesque.  And though his reputation as a composer has been revitalized in recent decades (and it would seem that performers have always championed his music) one will occasionally hear echoes of that chorus of criticism once-strong.  So here I find myself chiming in with a few words in his favour.

Part of the reason that Rachmaninov is singled out when this topic arises is that he was considered something of an anachronism in his day.  His music was defiantly non-experimental; he wasn’t part of any progressive wave or current in the musical culture of the early decades of the twentieth century.  This is to say that Rachmaninov was not “modern” in the academic sense of the term: modernity as a reaction to the 19th century, as the conscious attempt to rethink or to disintegrate the aesthetic values of the past.  Listen to the famous Adagio from his Second Symphony: The apparent “problem” is that his music happens to be conventionally beautiful.  And so taste-makers have often been critical of Rachmaninov or have chosen to pass over him in silence when considering classical music of the last century.

To bring up but one example: In his enormous Music in Western Civilization Paul Henry Lang mentions Rachmaninov only once – and even then, he does so disparagingly and in passing, casting him as a mere imitator of a bygone age, unable “to derive from Chopin’s heritage more than ephemeral compositions, dated at the time of their creation.” I suppose the sting is lessened slightly by the consistency of Lang’s lack of judgment in this case: he lumps in Rachmaninov with Scriabin as a composer of supposedly derivative music.  It is an instance of someone who is staggeringly knowledgeable about music lacking in foresight, in distance.

The Grove Incident

You can find one of the more entertaining sparring sessions in New Yorker critic, Harold Schonberg’s Lives of the Great Composers.  Schonberg stands squarely in Rachmaninov’s corner and cites the following passage from the 1954 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians as an example of the wrongheadedness with which history has sometimes judged Rachmaninov:

As a pianist Rachmaninoff was one of the finest artists of his time; as a composer he can hardly be said to have belonged to his time at all. . . .  His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes. . . .  The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favor.  The third pianoforte Concerto was on the whole liked by the public only because of its close resemblance to the second, while the fourth, which attempted something life a new departure, was a failure from the start.  The only later work that has attracted large concert audiences was the Rhapsody (variations) on a Theme by Paganini. . . .

The stilted tone aside, there’s something mildly strange happening here: On the one hand, the Grove Dictionary points to the popular success of certain Rachmaninov works as a sign of their apparent lack of substance.  On the other hand, it suggests that the general lack of popular success of other Rachmaninov works testifies to their artistic shortcomings.  Frothing at the mouth, Harold Schonberg greets the Grove verdict head-on, and characterizes it as  “one of the most outrageously snobbish and even stupid statements ever to be found in a work that is supposed to be an objective reference.”

Snobbery or Stupidity?

I appreciate that Schonberg delivers a much-needed bop on the nose of the Grove team, but is it really a plain matter of snobbery or stupidity? Let’s bring things a little closer to home – Rachmaninov’s first home, Russia.

It’s unfortunate that circumstance alone should have it that Rachmaninov be compared with his contemporary and compatriot, Sergei Prokofiev. Prokofiev, whose music is more dissonant and progressive in spirit, is generally considered the more “modern” of the two.  Prokofiev’s own dislike for Rachmaninov echoes loud in the grapevine, and Rachmaninov, so it goes, was kind enough to reciprocate. But why compare, why the animosity?  Perhaps Prokofiev himself felt the circumstantial pull of competition? In Bruno Monsaingeon’s 1998 biographical documentary on Sviatoslav Richter, Richter: The Enigma, the pianist chalks up Prokofiev’s hostility to “jealousy.”  Whatever the case, there’s a light that cuts through the fog: Prokofiev’s stunning and sympathetic 1920 interpretation of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor.

The Benefit of Hindsight

It is true that Rachmaninov didn’t fit neatly into the trends of early 20th century classical music.  But we now have the advantage of hindsight: And to my ears, his music has settled well.  If Rachmaninov’s musical meditations were once untimely, if his thoughts were once out of season, they have since found their place in the flow of recent history.

It’s no longer a matter of having to choose, as silly as it sounds, between Rachmaninov and the 20th century.

“Rachmaninov or Prokofiev?” “The Beatles or the Stones?” Much in the way that I choose to see the latter question as meaningless when posed by anyone other than schoolchildren on the playgrounds of the 1960s, I also hope that the former can be safely relegated to a bygone age of music criticism.

Editors of more recent editions of the Grove Dictionary have sobered up, and now remember Rachmaninov as “the last great representative of Russian late Romanticism.”  They even suggest that, “at its most inspired, Rachmaninoff’s lyrical inspiration is matchless.”

The development of music will always force us to appeal the initial verdicts of history.  If Rachmaninov was once reviled in some circles, it was due to a presumed belief in the necessary direction of classical music, the self-conscious attempt to break once and for all with the past.  But that’s all a chasing of the wind: For in the end, there can be no necessary principle of development in music.  And because there is no principle of necessity of historical development, there is no need to choose between, say, tonality and atonality: Each is an entirely valid, challenging and rewarding idiom.  The development of music will always remain, like Rachmaninov’s own, organic.

Listen to this sampling from the Vespers, one of Rachmaninov’s greatest achievements. 

It’s clear that, once the dust settles, there’s beauty to be found in an otherwise very ugly century.[Note: In saying “ugly,” here, I’m not referring to the music of the 20th century.]


Books I quote above:

  • Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1941).
  • Harold Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970).
  • The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (online access via Oxford Music Online).

The “past is inside the present” tag in the title of this piece comes from the beginning of “Music is Math,” a track by Scottish electronic duo, Boards of Canada.  You can listen to it here (from the album Geogaddi; Warp Records, 2002).

In 1944 Nat King Cole recorded Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor with his Los Angeles-based piano trio.  What’s special about the moment is that it represents a meaningful meeting of classical and jazz, a convergence of the twain: music of worlds so-called “Old” and “New.”

While branded in the popular imagination for the great “Unforgettable,” it has at times fallen into forgetfulness that Cole was a pianist of prodigious skill.  In fact, in an age of the swinging jazz bands, his early trio of the 1930s was something of a rarity – the very first of its kind, even.  If piano greats Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson were instrumental in establishing the trio as a standard ensemble of jazz performance, then they did so following in Cole’s footsteps.  The vocal works for which he’s most often remembered were produced largely due to popular demand.  Those cuts sold; the market demanded them.

Listen to the trio’s recording of George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.”  The interplay of piano, bass and guitar (not, as would later become the standard, drums) is the stuff of magic.  Lest we forget: In the history of jazz, Nat King Cole was also instrumental as an instrumentalist.

There is so much great jazz to be discovered in the King Cole Trio’s output, but I’d like to bang even harder on the doors of forgetting.  For it’s really with his performance of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor that we’re invited to consider a side of Cole that’s largely fallen on deaf ears.

What’s especially cool to hear in this performance is the weight of the Russian soul reconceived by the freer, improvisatory spirit of jazz.  (Just listen to Oscar Moore’s guitar solo!)  There are inumerable great classically-oriented performances of the prelude.  (You can listen to Rachmaninov himself perform it here, in three separate recordings from 1919, 1923 and 1928.)  But that there are so many strong performances in the classical tradition of interpretation gives all the more resonance to this particular King Cole Trio session.  If unorthodox, I consider it as viable an interpretation as any other, but one of many legitimate ways of interpreting Rachmaninov.  Though not entirely faithful to the letter of the score, there’s no question to my ear that he’s true to the spirit of Rachmaninov’s music.

Let me push a bit more and say that Rachmaninov himself would agree.

To get concrete: Rachmaninov emigrated to the United States in 1918 and lived there intermittently until his death in 1943.  In those years he tirelessly toured America’s cities.  In a recent article by James Bash of the Oregon Music News, it’s said that Rachmaninov performed in Portland, Oregon, no fewer than five times between 1923 and 1933.

I mention Portland in this case because it was in a 1931 issue of its newspaper, The Spectator, that Rachmaninov spoke to the subject of the interpretation of his music:

‘To be quite honest, no,’ he replied.  ‘You see when it comes to the average pianist, I am perfectly willing to let him play my pieces just as he chooses – especially if I am not there to hear him.  As for a master pianist, he is justified in finding his own interpretations and in putting his own personality into the rendering of the composition.  I indicate my own feeling about tempo, phrasing, and dynamic shading in the music itself, and this is the outline of my own conception.  But some great pianist may play my piano pieces with many differences of detail, with nuances and shadings I might not use myself; and yet his conception of the piece as a whole will never be wrong because his own good taste and musical instinct would guard against it.

‘It is certainly most interesting, at times, to see how some other pianist will give a piece you have written yourself an entirely different musical color, or present it from quite another angle of interpretation than your own.’” (*See below for source information.)

It is with an eye to the composer’s open view of artistry and musical interpretation that I think he would have approved of Nat King Cole’s playful take on his work.  Cole’s is a freer approach to this music, of course; but that freedom is the spirit of jazz itself.  It is the very voice of the New World.

The King Cole Trio’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor is both a place for the jazz fan to encounter the riches of the classical tradition, and an occasion for the classical devotee to think more freely about jazz.

Given that Rachmaninov and Cole both lived in Los Angeles, I wonder if each had heard the other in concert.  Could they have met? (Readers please jump in!)

The Trio’s Rachmaninov session dates from January 1944, ten months after the composer’s death.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to see Cole’s recording of the Prelude in C-sharp minor as his small way of remembering, of paying homage to Rachmaninov.  That’s just one more way of remembering this forgotten side of Cole.


Recommended Recording:

  • The King Cole Trio: That’s What (1943-47) (Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120826; originally recorded for Capitol Records)

Personel: Nat King Cole, piano, vocals; Oscar Moore, guitar; Johnny Miller, bass

*The Rachmaninov quote from the 1931 Portland Spectator is taken from James Bash’s “When Bartok, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff came to Portland,” (The Oregon Observer, July 12, 2010).

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