Oliver's Observatory

The Blog & Observations of Oliver H. Evans

The Piano--Once More

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Recently, I read an online post and an article that coincidentally reminded me of an interest I had in graduate school. The online post was the biography of this year's Gilmore Artist, Rafal Blechacz.   http://www.thegilmore.org/gilmore-artist-award/rafal-blechacz/ 

In addition to his success as a pianist (he won the Chopin Competition, receiving not simply the first prize, but all of the prizes in that competition), Blechacz is a doctoral student, pursuing aesthetics and the philosophy of music. Checking further In an interview that appeared online--http://www.examiner.com/article/interview-with-pianist-rafa-blechacz--he mentions Roman Ingarden, whose name I did not know, but whose book--The Literary Work of Art--I bought and read. It is one of those delightfully opaque books that I would have found more interesting were I still a graduate student. 


My second coincidental discovery happened because I accepted an offer from Listen magazine. http://listenmusicmag.com/  In exchange for agreeing to subscribe, I received for free what is, in fact, a great treasure--Andrew Rangell's CD Bach Keyboard Masterworks.

My first issue of Listen included an article by Damian Fowler on Jonathan Biss's MOOC on the Beethoven Sonatas--the article is also available online http://www.listenmusicmag.com/online/virtual-beethoven.php.

Part of Fowler's article centered on the question of what is lost by not having a direct interaction with a professor through a MOOC (many MOOCs do try to create some interaction, but it is not the same as being the classroom with the professor, even if she/he were to ignore you). Fowler's girlfriend (whom he refers to as such in the article) suggested that the personal contact with the professor might be a significant loss if one were teaching Schenkerian analysis.

To me, the more interesting question than whether one loses anything without being in the physical presence of the professor is the question of what background might one need in order to listen to Beethoven. In other words, Biss speaks of tonality and of sonata allegro form, of Beethoven's shifting the emphasis in his sonatas away from the first movement and toward the final movement, and of Beethoven's use of the mediant, as opposed to the dominant, as the key in which he presents the second theme of the first movement of a sonata. But he does not mention Heinrich Schenker.

I discovered--thanks to the internet--that Heinrich Schenker developed a theory for the analysis of tonal music. His books include Harmony, as well as Five Graphic Music Analyses. Checking that book on Amazon, I found that trying to read a musical score that has been subjected to analysis was more difficult than reading the score itself. Exploring this whole area further, I found on line Eero Tarasti's analysis of the first movement of the "Waldstein" Sonata, a semiotic analysis that makes reference to the work of Schenker.


Because my degrees are in literature, and not music, I was not familiar with Schenker or Tarasti. And, in fact, Ingarden was new to me, although most of what he writes about had some familiarity. Together, these accidental discoveries reminded me of a concept I had adored in graduate school-"the ontological status of a poem," which I put in quotation marks because it is derived from--or associated with--John Crowe Ransom.

Although it is still slightly interesting to ruminate over a poem's status--ontological or otherwise--that rumination is no longer as interesting to me as are certain poems themselves, which probably have no ontological status relative to me except for their moments in my mind. Similarly, the semiotic analysis of the "Waldstein" was neither as meaningful nor as helpful as Biss's analysis. And even Biss's analysis is not essential to someone being swept away by the "Waldstein."

At the risk of seeming anti-intellectual, for me the pushing of analyses to the point that only specialists are left in the room, usually to fight with one another over some obscure point of theory, has done a disservice to arts that were and still are accessible. The initial question is always whether a given work is captivating; and if it is, what more about it might be a means of deepening that interesting experience.  For example, assuming one responds to Bach's Prelude in e-flat minor in the first book of The Well -Tempered Clavier,  does it deepen the experience if one is told that Bach may have composed the piece after learning of his wife's death?

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These are idle thoughts that lead to no particular conclusion. You will notice the photos of winter that accompany this post. That is solely because whatever else may be said about this winter, it was a good time to re-read Italo Calvino's absolutely gorgeous novel, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. This novel is about the act of reading a novel and sort of make's one wonder what the ontological status of a novel is.