“A Sibyl”, Wagner, and Chopin

I wasn’t teaching at my day job this summer for the first time in a while, so I had a little more time than usual – but the unbridgeable gap between what one hopes to accomplish and what actually happens remained wide. Still, a few things got done.

The most important task accomplished was completing A Sibyl, my Fromm commission for Collage New Music. This is a cycle on texts by Susan Stewart that she wrote specifically for the project, and is scored for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. Mary Mackenzie will be the soloist. I estimate the piece will run about 25 minutes. There are six songs, setting poems that build on what can be found in Virgil and Ovid about the mysterious figure of the Cumaean Sibyl in somewhat the way Susan built her texts for my Songs for Adam (a work for baritone and orchestra) upon the Biblical stories. Collage has set the premiere of A Sibyl for the afternoon of October 15, the same day Emmanuel Music will do a motet of mine in the morning at Emmanuel Church, and Winsor Music will do my recent quintet for oboe and piano quartet in the evening. Three performances in Greater Boston in a single day is an amazing trifecta of good luck – more details to follow.

I spent many summer hours at the piano, working on the B-flat minor Scherzo of Chopin and playing through the piano score of Die Walküre. On the basis of playing that score, I can confirm a few things you already knew about the Wagner: yes, it really is very long;  yes, if you had a dollar for every diminished seventh chord in the piece you could retire today, and yes, the harmony in the Todesverkündigung is impossibly gorgeous. What I had not realized is how many passages throughout the opera are essentially recitative of a relatively straightforward kind – the “endless melody” you read about in your undergrad music history textbook is not quite so endless as Wagner fools us into thinking.

I still get bothered by the amount of literal repetition in the Chopin Scherzi; I suppose I wish the pieces were actually four more ballades. At least there is less literal repetition in the B-flat minor than in the B-minor, the other one I have practiced. Much of my time was spent on baffling questions of fingering – when it is better to stretch, when to cross…  Fingering remains a mystery to me – I often don’t realize when I am doing something unnecessarily awkward, or don’t see what could be a viable alternative. The cliché about the easiest fingering not necessarily being the best fingering is not terribly helpful when “easiest” and “best” seem to be moving targets that shift from day to day. Pianistic issues aside, engaging with pieces by playing them is essential nourishment for me – as a composer, but also as a person, and I was glad to have a little more time for that nourishment over this past summer.

Free Chopin?

Here is your piece of musical illiteracy for the day: A Kickstarter that is silly, stupid and perhaps fraudulent, and an article about it by a reporter who has not a clue as to how ridiculous this is.  Chopin’s music is, of course, already in the public domain – his scores are not under copyright. The plan is not to put Chopin’s music in the public domain, but to put recordings of Chopin in the public domain; to identify a recording as “the music” may be appropriate in the pop realm, but not for classical.

If the $75k is going to be used to hire an orchestra, you have to wonder where the money is really going, given that the vast majority of Chopin’s music is for piano solo.

By the way, I had planned to post the above as a comment, but the L.A. Times site wouldn’t let me register, twice. I filled out the registration form correctly, submitted it, nothing happened. This is not the first site where I have tried to post a comment, but it was impossible to do so – why do they make it so difficult?

Late Advent Miscellany

Some random links to be visited by the light of the Advent Wreath, and after considering these meditations on the O Antiphons:

Jeremy Denk on Charles Rosen.

– a fascinating online collection of early Chopin editions.

– here’s a serious procrastination aid: the National Jukebox at the Library of Congress. (via George Blood.)

– I’ve been thinking more about my Carter/jazz musician post. Though I still think it is true that you could assemble a quite decent jazz combo from among the members of most American symphony orchestras, it is even more likely that the folks capable of Carter’s solo and chamber music will have some sort of jazz literacy. Consider this post by Davy Rakowski where he describes confirming that Amy Briggs knows the changes to the interlude of Night in Tunisia. In the other direction, surely Uri Caine could nail a Carter piano piece. His album where he performs with the Arditti Quartet (known as Carter advocates) will make you think more about the intersections among Carter, high modernism in general, and jazz.