With virtually no patina

Listening to WHRB yesterday in the car, I was floored by a recording of Perahia playing Handel’s Suite No. 3 in D minor, HWV 428. The final two movements—air with five variations, and presto—are thrilling. I’d never heard the piece, and I still don’t know much about the seventeen keyboard suites published in two collections—first eight (HWV 426–433), known as the Great Eight, in 1720 (at age thirty-five), then another nine (HWV 434–442) around 1733—beyond the one that gives us the “Harmonious Blacksmith” (HWV 430, in E major) and another (HWV 434, in B-flat major) from which Brahms borrowed the theme for his Handel variations. (Schiff has a splendid recording of the latter on a disc with the Brahms.)

My ignorance is not totally my fault: very little seems to have been written about the suites—they do not command the same attention as Bach’s French and English suites or the partitas—and the only near-complete recording I can find of all seventeen on piano is by Richter and Gavrilov, but inexplicably they leave out the resplendent 434. Here is what Hungarian-American musicologist Paul Henry Lang writes in George Frideric Handel (he speaks of eight suites in the second volume, but there were multiple printings, apparently, and ultimately a ninth was added):

Of all of Handel’s works it is the many harpsichord pieces that may provide a glimpse of his creative youth. This is natural, because keyboard music was the German cantor’s native soil. Chrysander published a collection of these pieces, to which he gave the title Klavierbuch aus der Jugendzeit. Here we can find many prototypes and original versions of some of the pieces reworked and published later. “Reworking” is the key to the uneven quality to Handel’s output in this area, for the keyboard pieces show a wide range in quality, from the slight and insignificant to the magnificent and highly artistic. When an old piece was used in its original shape—that is, when Walsh or a Continental pirate published it without Handel’s permission—the result was unworthy of the great composer. When Handel had a chance to “correct” a youthful piece we are dealing with an altogether different kind of music, and, of course, the new pieces added to the collection by the mature master are almost all first-rate Handel. The music is no longer that of a young provincial German composer but of an elegant, experienced, and knowledgeable international composer intimately acquainted with Italian and French music.

The success of these pieces was phenomenal; they were the most popular compositions of their sort in all of Europe. Published by John Cluer and Walsh as independent volumes of “Lessons,” selections often appeared both in London anthologies and in the pirated publications of Dutch, Swiss, French, and German printers. In sales the harpsichord volumes outdid by far Couperin’s, Rameau’s, and Bach’s similar collections. As usual when the business methods of the estimable publishing house of Walsh are combined with Handel’s own ways with his musical hoard, things become hazy as to time, place, and even the identity of the composer. The first volume of suites, of 1720, was not yet within Walsh’s grasp; it was published by John Cluer “for the Author.” These suites could not have been composed before the Italian journey. Perhaps some of them were written in Hanover, but, at any rate, they surely were thoroughly gone over for the “corrected” edition. The second set, published by Walsh in 1733, without Handel’s permission, also contains eight suites, but this music is considerably weaker than the 1720 collection, undoubtedly because the material, somehow filched by Walsh, was not subjected to Handel’s usual reconditioning treatment. Among other reasons that indicate an arbitrary collection is the neglect of tonal order. The scheme in the first book of suites is carefully arranged and contrasted: A major, F major, D minor, E minor, E major, F-sharp minor, G minor, F minor. In the second book there is no orderly succession, and it is most unlikely that Handel would have agreed to pairs of consecutive suites in the same key. Of the third set, published later, not only the date is uncertain: one wonders whether these “suites” were not put together by the publisher from single, unrelated pieces. Indeed, we are not even sure Handel had anything to do with this largely insignificant music.

It is a shame pianists do not play these more often. As Richter writes in his notebooks, “these Suites are veritable miracles, laminated in gold but with virtually no patina.”

Fortunately there are several recordings of 428, in D minor. Here’s a smattering of the ones I like, timestamped to the final two movements. Richter’s is the least exciting, even dull; he makes up for it with his verbal endorsement. As the other piano versions make clear, these pieces should not be relegated to the harpsichord repertoire—or the dustbin of musical history.

  • Gould, on harpsichord, played as if on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Daria van den Bercken, on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Richter, on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Perahia, on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Shura Cherkassky, on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Éric Heidsieck

Air:

Presto:

  • Ottavio Dantone, on harpsichord

Air, with a blow out at the end of the fifth variation:

Presto:

Reading

Burrows, Handel

Dean, The New Grove Handel

Lang, George Frideric Handel

One does well to listen to them

The opening of Nietzsche’s lesser-known incomplete book, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (c. 1873), translated by Marianne Cowan:

There are people who are opposed to all philosophy and one does well to listen to them, particularly when they advise the diseased minds of Germans to stay away from metaphysics, instead preaching purification through physis as Goethe did, or healing through music, as did Richard Wagner. The physicians of our culture repudiate philosophy. Whoever wishes to justify it must show, therefore, to what ends a healthy culture uses and has used philosophy. Perhaps the sick will then actually gain salutary insight into why philosophy is harmful specifically to them. There are good instances, to be sure, of a type of health which can exist altogether without philosophy, or with but a very moderate, almost playful, exercise of it. The Romans during their best period lived without philosophy. But where could we find an instance of cultural pathology which philosophy restored to health? If philosophy ever manifested itself as helpful, redeeming, or prophylactic, it was in a healthy culture. The sick, it made ever sicker. Wherever a culture was disintegrating, wherever the tension between it and its individual components was slack, philosophy could never re-integrate the individuals back into the group. Wherever an individual was of a mind to stand apart, to draw a circle of self-sufficiency about himself, philosophy was ready to isolate him still further, finally to destroy him through that isolation. Philosophy is dangerous wherever it does not exist in its fullest right, and it is only the health of a culture—and not every culture at that—which accords it such fullest right.

Themes and variations

A running list of my favorite sets of variations—the obsessional artistic form par excellence—along with some performances that are important to me, in one way or another:

  • Brahms, Op. 24, Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel

by Roman Rabinovich:

by Shai Wosner:

Handel’s original theme and variations, from the first keyboard suite in B-flat major, HWV 434, by András Schiff:

  • Rameau, Gavotte et doubles, last movement of the Suite in A minor from the Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin

by David Bar-Illan:

by Trevor Pinnock:

  • Beethoven, 32 variations on an original theme

by Emil Gilels:

by Radu Lupu:

by Glenn Gould:

by Evgeny Kissin:

  • Beethoven, second movement of Op. 111, Piano Sonata No. 32

by Ivo Pogorelich:

  • Beethoven, first movement of Op. 26, Piano Sonata No. 12

by Artur Schnabel:

by Annie Fischer:

  • Fauré, Op. 79, Thème et Variations

by Giulio Biddau:

  • Marais, 32 variations on Les Folies d’Espagne, from Book II of the Pièces de viole

by Ensemble Spirale and Marianne Muller:

  • Chopin, Op. 2, Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni

by Emil Gilels at the Seattle Opera House:

  • Haydn, Variations for piano on “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser”

by Kristian Bezuidenhout:

  • Schubert, 13 Variations on a Theme by Hüttenbrenner, D. 576

by Sviatoslav Richter:

  • Mozart, first movement of Sonata No. 11, K. 331

by András Schiff:

by Ivo Pogorelich:

by Glenn Gould—a highly idiosyncratic recording, the ending all the more dazzling:

  • Franck, Variations symphoniques, FWV 46

by Jorge Bolet and the Royal Concertgebouw:

  • Schumann, Op. 13, Etudes symphoniques

by Ivo Pogorelich:

by Sviatoslav Richter:

  • Horowitz, Carmen Variations

by Arcadi Volodos:

  • William Byrd, Sellinger’s Round

by Glenn Gould:

Those desirous of learning

The first invention

Bach’s prefatory note to his Inventions and Sinfonias (compiled 1723), the first of which I started learning last Saturday:

Honest method

by which the amateurs of the keyboard—especially, however, those desirous of learning—are shown a clear way not only (1) to learn to play cleanly in two parts, but also, after further progress, (2) to handle three obbligato parts correctly and well; and along with this not only to obtain good inventions but to develop the same well; above all, however, to achieve a cantabile style in playing and at the same time acquire a strong foretaste of composition.

Anthony Tommasini on some recordings of these pedagogical works:

Virtually every youngster who has taken piano lessons has been taught Bach’s Two-Part Invention in C Major. It’s the first of 15 inventions that Bach composed as instructional pieces for his first-born son, and if the composer’s descendants held the rights to these works they could be living in comfort off the royalties. The C Major Invention, no doubt the world’s most played piece, is ideal for beginners: it lasts less than two minutes (even at a practice room tempo), mostly lies on the white keys and involves just two lines of ambling counterpoint, one per hand. Never is either hand asked to play more than one note at a time.

Given their pedagogical function and wide familiarity, almost no one thinks of programming the inventions for a recital. But several major pianists have recorded them notably, including Walter Gieseking, Glenn Gould and, more recently, Andras Schiff. A new RCA Red Seal recording by Peter Serkin (09026-68594-2) may be the most intriguing of all.

The header “honest method” reminds me of Russell, in the Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy:

The method of “postulating” what we want has many advantages; they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil.

It must be sought out

From Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music in the form of six lessons (1948), translated by Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl:

For myself, I have always considered that in general it is more satisfactory to proceed by similarity rather than by contrast. Music thus gains strength in the measure that it does not succumb to the seductions of variety. What it loses in questionable riches it gains in true solidity.

Contrast produces an immediate effect. Similarity satisfies us only in the long run. Contrast is an element of variety, but it divides our attention. Similarity is born of a striving for unity. The need to seek variety is perfectly legitimate, but we should not forget that the One precedes the Many. Moreover, the coexistence of both is constantly necessary, and all the problems of art, like all possible problems for that matter, including the problem of knowledge and of Being, revolve ineluctably about this question, with Parmenides on one side denying the possibility of the Many, and Heraclitus on the other denying the existence of the One. Mere common sense, as well as supreme wisdom, invite us to affirm both the one and the other. All the same, the best attitude for a composer in this case will be the attitude of a man who is conscious of the hierarchy of values and who must make a choice. Variety is valid only as a means of attaining similarity. Variety surrounds me on every hand. So I need not fear that I shall be lacking in it, since I am constantly confronted by it. Contrast is everywhere. One has only to take note of it. Similarity is hidden; it must be sought out, and it is found only after the most exhaustive efforts. When variety tempts me, I am uneasy about the facile solutions it offers me. Similarity, on the other hand, poses more difficult problems but also offers results that are more solid and hence more valuable to me.

Just like a faucet

For the new year I bought myself a turntable, and played the only well-preserved LPs I have: a gift of Billie Holiday’s eight-vinyl collection Ain’t nobody’s business if I do, by the Classics Records Library. There are songs here I’ve never heard, including “Fine and Mellow,” which ends

Love is just like a faucet
It turns off and on
Love is just like a faucet
It turns off and on

Some times when you think it’s on, baby
It has turned off and gone

as well as “I Cried for You”:

I cried for you
Now it’s your turn to cry over me
Every road has a turning
That’s one thing you’re learning

I cried for you
What a fool I used to be

Now I’ve found two eyes
Just a little bit bluer
I’ve found a heart
Just a little bit truer

I cried for you
Now it’s your turn to cry over me

In the liner notes Nat Hentoff writes:

In jazz, the music is the extension of the personality. And so it was with Billie. That’s why there is no self-pity in the singing. The personality you hear throughout these recordings was the same one Billie would manifest in a living room or just rapping outside a club. The mocking, shrewdly perceptive wit; the independence (except, alas, where men were concerned); the yearning for someone to have reason to trust; the glee at good jazz playing.

A dozen things at once

H. L. Mencken on Brahms, from A Mencken Chrestomathy:

More than any other art, perhaps, music demands brains. It is full of technical complexities. It calls for a capacity to do a dozen things at once. But most of all it is revelatory of what is called character. When a trashy man writes it, it is trashy music. Here is where the immense superiority of such a man as Brahms becomes manifest. There is less trashiness in his music than there is in the music of any other man ever heard of, which the sole exception, perhaps, of Johann Sebastian Bach. It was simply impossible for him, at least after he had learned his trade, to be obvious or banal. He could not write even the baldest tune without getting into it something of his own high dignity and profound seriousness; he could not play with that tune, however light his mood, without putting an austere and noble stateliness into it. Hearing Brahms, one never gets any sense of being entertained by a clever mountebank. One is facing a superior man, and the fact is evident from the first note. I give you his “Deutches Requiem” as an example. There is no hint of what is commonly regarded as religious feeling in it. Brahms, so far as I know, was not a religious man. Nor is there the slightest sign of the cheap fustian of conventional patriotism. Nevertheless, a superb emotion is there—nay, an overwhelming emotion. The thing is irresistibly moving. It is moving because a man of the highest intellectual dignity, a man of exalted feelings, a man of brains, put into it his love for and pride in his country.

But in music emotion is only half the story. Mendelssohn had it, and yet he belongs to the second table. Nor is it a matter of mere beauty—that is, of mere sensuous loveliness. If it were, then Dvorak would be greater than Beethoven, whose tunes are seldom inspired, and who not infrequently does without them altogether. What makes great music is simply the thing I have mentioned: brains. The greatest musician is a man whose thoughts and feelings are above the common level, and whose language matches them. What he has to say comes out of a wisdom that is not ordinary. Platitude is impossible to him. Above all, he is master of his craft, as opposed to his art. He gets his effects in new, difficult and ingenious ways—and they convince one instantly that they are inevitable. One can easily imagine improvements in the human eye, and in the Alps, and in the art of love, and even in the Constitution, but one cannot imagine improvement in the first movement of the Eroica.

On music’s “technical complexities,” compare C. P. E. Bach’s foreword to the Part One of Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen:

Keyboard instruments have many merits, but are beset by just as many difficulties. Were it necessary, their excellence would be easy to prove, for in them are combined all the individual features of many other instruments. Full harmony, which requires three, four, or more other instruments, can be expressed by the keyboard alone. And there are many similar advantages. At the same time, who is not aware of the many demands that are made upon it; how it is considered insufficient for the keyboardist merely to discharge the normal task of every executant, namely, to play in accordance with the rules of good performance compositions written for his instrument? How, beyond this, he must be able to improvise fantasias in all styles, to work out extemporaneously any requested setting after the strictest rules of harmony and melody; how we must be at home in all keys and transpose instantly and faultlessly; and play everything at sight whether designed for his instrument or not; how he must have at his command a comprehensive knowledge of thorough bass which he must play with discrimination, often departing from the notation, sometimes in many voices, again in few, strictly as well as in the galant manner, from both excessive and insufficient symbols, or unfigured and incorrectly figured bases; how he must often extract this thorough bass from large scores with unfigured or even pausing basses (when other voices serve as harmonic fundament) and with it reinforce the ensemble; and who knows how many other things? All this must be done competently, often on an unfamiliar instrument which has not been tested to determine whether it is good or bad, whether it is playable or not, in which latter case extenuation is but rarely granted. On the contrary, it can be expected that, normally, improvisations will be solicited without anyone’s being concerned whether the performer is in the proper mood, and if he is not, without any effort being made to create or maintain the proper disposition by providing a good instrument.

Notwithstanding these demands, the keyboard has always found its admirers, as well it might. Its difficulties are not enough to discourage the study of an instrument whose superior charms are ample compensation for attendant time and trouble. Moreover, not all amateurs feel obliged to fulfill all of the requirements. They satisfy as many of them as they care to or as their innate talents permit.

And on the relation between art and character (and the characteristically judgmental flair of Mencken’s prose), compare Auden’s remarks in “De Droite et de Gauche,” translated by Richard Howard:

Judging a work of art is virtually the same mental operation as judging human beings, and requires the same aptitudes: first, a real love of works of art, an inclination to praise rather than blame, and regret when a complete rejection is required; second, a vast experience of all artistic activities; and last, an awareness, openly and happily accepted, of one’s own prejudices. Some critics fail because they are pedants whose ideal of perfection is always offended by a concrete realization. Others fail because they are insular and hostile to what is alien to them; these critics, yielding to their prejudices without knowing they have them and sincerely offering judgments they believe to be objective, are more excusable than those who, aware of their prejudices, lack the courage to enter the lists to defend their personal tastes.

The best literary critic is not the one whose judgments are always right but the one whose essays compel you to read and reread the works he discusses; even when he is hostile, you feel that the work attacked is important enough to be worth the effort. There are other critics who, even when they praise a book, cancel any desire you might have to read it.

A refuge of absolute technique

Glenn Gould’s introductory remarks before playing the last movement of Hindemith’s third piano sonata, in The Anatomy of Fugue, broadcast by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on March 4, 1963:

In more recent times one often notices that the most prolific fugue writers are the composers who have the greatest difficulty in being direct and lucid in a freer compositional style. One thinks of composers like Max Reger or the extraordinary Russian Nikolai Myaskovsky. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the artistic climate of the early years of this century was more hospitable to the concept of the stargazing composer who received lightning bolts of inspiration than to the image of the hardworking academic burning the midnight oil over his fugues and canons. And in such times those composers who for one reason or another find the philosophical liberties of free form frightening or embarrassing tend to use the fugue as a refuge of absolute technique: one can prove one’s mastery of the material more readily in a fugue than one can prove it in a less self-conscious form. There’s less room for arguments to whether or not one has been successful. One need only suggest certain fundamental propositions of aesthetic right and wrong, and one’s colleagues will have to agree that a particular fugal inspiration has been a happy one, or a successful one, or maybe a slightly too risky one. And so in generations in which fewer marks are given for ingenuity, for contrapuntal dexterity, than for vivid imagination, for dramatic flair, the invention of fugue has often attracted composers temperamentally unsuited to larger forms—composers perhaps of a particularly logical mind, who find it difficult to believe unquestioningly in their own subconscious impulses.

In our century, composers have continued writing fugues, particularly those whose style shows a neoclassic influence. But almost every idiom has seen its share of fugues. The Canadian composer Harry Summers has composed fugues in a style which uses the controversial twelve-tone technique. The brilliant American Lukas Foss has taught some of his colleagues to improvise on some fugues out of chart patterns which he draws on paper. And various jazz groups have attempted to improvise fugues, too. But most of these, because of one basic omission, have negated the main source of discipline inherent in the fugue. The harmonic criteria of most of the contemporary musical language shies away from tonality, and they’ve been unable to develop their linear designs into a system which would produce real demands of chord tension and relaxation. And because of this, fugal technique in their work is little more than a respectful bow to the past, really—it’s, it’s not a living tradition.

Paul Hindemith is one of the few composers of our own time who can undeniably be called a fuguist to the manner born. Hindemith has developed a very special language of his own, a language which is contemporary in the best sense of the word but which in its attempt to provide harmonic logic uses what you might call a substitute tonality. It neatly sidesteps the basic confrontations of tonic and dominant chords of conventional tonality, but it has nonetheless a very strong sense of relative tension. And so since he uses a language in which this structure of fugue can be helped along by the exchange of subject and answer at clearly related harmonic levels, Hindemith already has the edge on fugue writers in the tonal idiom. Besides which, he’s quite at home in an idiom which employs a minimum of what you could call textural irregularities: he’s quite able to continue a structure in three or four or five real voices over a period of some minutes’ duration. In fact for most of his career he’s been writing in a style which rather makes us think of an early Renaissance contrapuntal jamboree. The fugue I’m going to play now by Hindemith is actually the concluding movement of a piano sonata, and it doesn’t pretend to the highly romantic connection of Beethoven’s finale, where the concept of fugue is welded into the structure of the sonata, but it happily provides an assurance that the magic of fugue, however rare it may be nowadays, isn’t yet forgotten.

Magnified into a miracle

Leonard Bernstein’s introduction to Heinrich Gebhard’s The Art of Pedaling (1963):

Reading this beautiful book has been in the nature of a recaptured experience for me—the tenderly nostalgic re-experiencing of an old set of emotions. So clearly does the essence of the Gebhard personality emerge in his writing that it transported me almost physically back into his gracious studio in Brookline, Massachusetts, absorbing again the gentle urging, the massive charm, the malice-free wit, and the overwhelming love for music (romantic as a young lover is romantic) that stamped each piano lesson I had with him as a major event. We would sit at two fine old Mason and Hamlins, abreast: I would play, he would play: he would leap up, with that light, deer-like energy, and over my shoulder coax my Mason and Hamlin to sigh and sing like his. Anything I did that pleased him was magnified into a miracle by his enthusiasms: my failures were minimized and lovingly corrected. And all was bathed in the glow of wonder, of constant astonishment at the golden streams of Chopin, the subtle might of Beethoven, the fevered imaginings of Schumann, and the cooler images of Debussy. But nothing ever became really cool. Sound, in itself, was passion; the disposition of sound into constellations for the piano was life itself. I never once left that studio on my own two feet: I floated out.

During my last year of study with this Delphic fountain, I came upon, and was infatuated with, the Variations by Aaron Copland. A new world of music had opened to me in this work—extreme, prophetic, clangorous, fiercely dissonant, intoxicating. The work was unknown to Heinrich. “Teach it to me,” he said, “and then, by Jove, I’ll teach it back to you.” And that is precisely what happened. Obviously Gebhard’s greatness as a teacher resided mainly in his greatness as a student. Not long before his death he wrote me that he was in the midst of “reviewing” the works of Bach and The Ring of the Nibelungen. By Jove, that was a great man.

A really stupid thing to want to do

Elvis Costello in conversation with Timothy White for Musician magazine, October 1983:

Framing all the great music out there only drags down its immediacy. The songs are lyrics, not speeches, and they’re tunes, not paintings. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture—it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.