Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Honest concert notes

In 1845, the year he wrote his six fugues on the four-note theme B-A-C-H (Op. 60), Robert Schumann was renting a spiffy Louis Schone pedal piano with a 29-note pedal board. According to Schumann's contemporary and biographer, Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielewski, Schumann wrote the fugues specifically for organ, amidst a sea of other contrapuntal pieces written that year specifically for pedal piano.1 B-A-C-H, like Bach, belongs on the king of instruments.

But if you don't happen to have a king in your living room, you could compose sitting at your right swell rented prince* instead, which is maybe kind of close enough to an organ that no one will notice the difference, unless you do things like (dang) double octaves to mimic pulling out stops, forget that tones decay when you hold down a piano key but that they don't when you hold down an organ key, or stick in subito piano and sforzando and crescendo indications that are trivially easy on a piano but make an organist wonder "what the *&$# were you thinking?"

A non-organist, Schumann had enough experience with the instrument to understand its challenges. As he advised in his "House Rules and Maxims for Young Musicians" (1849), "Lose no opportunity of practicing on the organ; there is no instrument that so quickly revenges itself on anything unclear or impure in composition or playing as the organ." How ironically perceptive!

Schumann considered the B-A-C-H fugues to be among his finest compositions, writing to his publisher in 1846 that "I worked on this set for the whole of last year in order to make it somewhat worthy of the exalted name it bears; [it is] a work that will, I believe, long outlive my other works."2 Of course, any Schumannophile who's read any Schumann biography will know that Schumann regularly wrote with effusive enthusiasm about whatever next great "entirely new!" composition he was working on at the time, so his opinion of Op. 60 (sincere though it may have been) should be taken with a grain of salt.

Although Schumann's contemporaries heard much to praise in the composer's fugues, posterity has viewed his contrapuntal pieces less kindly. Ah, fickle fashion. To illustrate this point, compare one modern critic's review ("you sure are a glutton for punishment") to Wasielewski's glowing assessment**:

"Of the two sets of fugues (Ops. 72 and 60), the latter, consisting of six fugues on the name of Bach, is of extraordinary merit. The first five fugues especially display so firm and masterly a treatment of the most difficult forms of art, that Schumann might from these alone lay claim to the title of a profound contrapuntist. They show variety of plastic power with four notes only. The tone of feeling varies in all six pieces, and is always poetic, which, in connection with a command of form, is the main point in composition. These are serious character-pieces. The sixth fugue offers a difficult problem as to execution, since the mingling of even and uneven movement renders it very difficult to perform it properly upon an organ."3

And now, for your aural edification, here is Op. 60 #2 on organ and on pedal piano, performed by Martin Luecker and Silvio Celeghin respectively.

*I'm not sure king:prince properly describes organ:pedal piano. It should probably be something more like king:king's second cousin.

**Indeed, Wasielewski, whom we might consider the chief booster of the first-generation ardent Schumannophile club, found it nearly impossible to write about Schumann in anything but glowing terms.

1. Wasielewski, Life of Robert Schumann (1871), 149.
2. John Daverio, Robert Schumann: Herald of a "New Poetic Age" (1997), 308.
3. Wasielewski, 149.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Schumann update

Back in August on my Wadlstrumpf blog, I wrote about hearing two of Schumann's B-A-C-H fugues performed live at the Baroque church in St. Peter im Schwarzwald, and about how I nonetheless remained certain that these pieces could be performed convincingly, and about how I was giving myself until the end of this year--until the end of Schumann's 200th Jubelaeumsjahr--to work toward that goal myself. To quote:

Johannes Götz played Schumann's B-A-C-H fugues numbers 5 and 2 and the canon in A-flat, and I learned that I am not the only organist baffled by certain aspects of these pieces. It's no wonder Clara Schumann was able to build an entire career out of being the only person who could properly interpret her husband's musical genius. I'm certain that despite their bizarreness, these pieces can be played convincingly, and I'm giving myself the rest of 2010 to figure out how to play the B-A-C-H fugues in a way that, short of leaving me satisfied, at least doesn't make me irritated.

Now that I've been back on the bench for a month, I've made good progress refining fugue 2 and getting fugues 3-6 under my fingers and feet, and I'm beginning to find satisfying registrations for all six on the Flentrop. It's time to play them for my organ teacher, David A., with whom I haven't had a lesson since early July. I happened to run into him today, and told him, with the devout fervor of a born-again Schumannophile, that I was working on all six fugues. It says something of the challenging not-quite-rightness of these pieces that David replied, "you sure are a glutton for punishment."

(Ironically, I initially dove into the Schumann fugues in part to hide from the piece David wanted me to work on this summer, Marcel Dupré's "Variations on a Noël." Talk about punishment. The Variations are like the two-semester senior quantum mechanics sequence I took in 1986-87: amazing and awe-inspiring, surely, but the ratio between effort to learn and consequent intellectual pleasure makes you think maybe you don't want to spend the rest of your life as a physicist after all, nor, 24 years later, spend the summer slowly and methodically practicing all those notes.)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fish health and the great cat experiment

Following the fish tank catastrophe, Beamer the angel fish has been thriving in the tiny hospital tank in the kitchen. At feeding time, s/he hovers with tail fin wagging and agape mouth aimed upward toward the surface of the water, waiting for those dry, colorful little fish'n'shrimp chips to fall from the hand of the life-giving deity (me). Beamer grows visibly larger daily and is strong, radiantly healthy, and about as cuddly as a cold-blooded angel fish can be.

Alas, Leo the harlequin rasbora, being a schooling fish, is not so happy. Indeed, Leo spends the daylight hours hiding behind the filter pump, waiting morosely for his/her aquarium glass reflection to come out and play. The profound loneliness isn't aided by the fact that S repeatedly forgets Leo's name and calls him/her "Alex."

In other pet news, I have decided to toilet train Homer, our lithe and schmusig geriatric passive-aggressive cat. NB Homer: this is what you get when you pee all over the bath mat for three weeks when your humans are on vacation, even if (just guessing) the housesitter never bothered to change the litterbox until the night before we came home.

The device I am using for Homer's re-education is known as the Litter Kwitter. I did a little comparison shopping and, based on 165 thoughtful and compelling customer reviews from around the globe, chose the Litter Kwitter over a cheaper, flimsier system. We are placing our confidence in the award-winning system despite the tacky "Kw-."

Homer responded to Stage 1--the appearance, on the floor next to the downstairs toilet, of the red litter-filled tray within the white imitation toilet bowl rim--with general disinterest. We recently began Stage 2, stationing the red litter-filled tray again within the imitation toilet bowl rim, but now clipping the imitation rim onto the actual toilet bowl rim. See how this works? Homer responded to Stage 2 with initial disinterest, after which a human needed to use the downstairs toilet and inadvertently returned the system to Stage 1. As you might observe, this is not the most convenient system, but four to six patience-filled weeks from now, when Homer is completely, unerringly, Litter Kwitter affirmingly toilet trained and no longer expressing his wrath by peeing on towels, we'll be laughing all the way to the litter-free bank.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Reminiscence roadtrip, part II

They say you can never go home again, but you sure can revisit a lot of places you used to live.

I've caught up at last with the reminiscence roadtrip on Wadlstrumpf. Might Oughta Should will return to its regular programming shortly.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Reminiscence roadtrip, part I

Thanks to the gift of jetlag, I have rediscovered the art of falling asleep at a sensible hour. As a result, I am comfortably spending my late nights sleeping rather than blogging. Tonight, however, I am coming off the adrenaline high of running a choir rehearsal--choir season at work commenced this evening--so I am channeling my energy and finally catching up on the tail end of our Germany trip.