cpe & other thoughts

I have been playing the piano pieces of C.P.E. Bach. I own two Dover collections of them and the later, better three volume edition edited by Eiji Hashimoto.

Six Keyboard Sonatas - Volume 1: Berlin, 1760 | Music Shop Europe

Despite owning these five volumes, I am not clear about how the keyboard works of C.P.E. Bach are organized. The Groves Dictionary of Music tells me that he wrote over 1,000 separate works over a period of 60 years. Despite saying that his keyboard compositions are “at the heart of his creative work,” unlike Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and others it’s not easy for me to understand what he was doing in these pieces. I have played all five volumes through at least once. I can see the glimmers of the impending Classical interest in formal aspects of the piece. Not to mention C. P. E.’s facile ability to make interesting and beautiful music.

C. P. E. stands between the baroque of his father’s music and the music of Haydn and Mozart. Groves says that Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven held his music in high esteem but that there is no substantiated evidence of this. Haydn and Beethoven are known to have used his book, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments as young men. When an English newspaper reported there was tension between C. P. E. and Haydn, he demurred and was quoted that “It is my belief that every master has his own true worth. Praise and blame can do nothing to alter it. The work alone allots praise or blame to the master, and I therefore take everyone as I find him.” Hamburgischer Unpartheyischer Correspondent, 20 September 1785, quoted in the Groves article on C. P. E.

All this arouses not only my admiration but my curiosity. Subsequently I have requested a biography of C.P.E. and a collection of his letters through the MelCat network. I look forward to learning more about him.

In the meantime I continue to re-read and ponder Christopher Small’s ideas in Musicking: The Meaning of Performing and Listening. I can see that he has been very formative in some of my more radical conclusions about music.

A trained classical musician himself, his career was basically a reminder that Western civilization and its musics are one of many.

“Most of the world’s musicians—and by that word I mean, here and throughout this book, not just professional musicians, not just those who make a living from singing or playing or composing, but anyone who sings or plays or composes—have no use for musical scores and do not treasure musical works but simply play and sing, drawing on remembered melodies and rhythms and on their own powers of invention within the strict order of tradition. “

In addition he points out that so called “classical music” is not even a dominant aspect of music in the current Western world. Writing in 1998 he says that “It appeals to only a very tiny minority of people, even within Western industrialized societies; classical music records account for only 3 percent of all record sales.”

I find that all of this puts my own musical life in a helpful perspective. I seem to have more in common with Small than most musicians I have rubbed shoulders with in my life especially including those in my academic training.

None of this diminishes my own love of making music and listening to it. If anything, it confirms it.

musing on mozart

Kent McDonald was my first organ teacher. He accepted me as a student a bit reluctantly. I was a hairy bar musician playing part-time at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Oscoda. Helen Swetka was an elderly lady there who pointed out consistently and vigorously that I needed more training and should study with someone like him. This was charitable of her. In my serving as the organist/choir director of this tiny northern Michigan church I avoided the pedals entirely. Mrs. Swetka was not the only one who noticed my lack of skills but for the most part the community seemed glad to get someone compent enough to do the gig.

Finally I approached Kent McDonald. He was a church organist who served in a fancy Detroit suburb and had a cottage in Oscoda. He agreed but insisted that I come to his church in Birmingham for lessons and that I not bother him in Oscoda. This I did.

We had a bit of stormy relationship. Kent was a erudite organist with a degree from Eastman. He taught at Oakland University. He abhorred all music but “classical” music. He once told me that the worst night of his life was spent substituting as the pianist for a dance band. I was an arrogant ignorant young man far too certain of my own potential and abilities.

I bring up Kent because I remember him saying that sometimes he would lock himself in the choir room at St. James in Birmingham where he worked and play through the entire piano sonatas of Mozart.

At the peak of my abilities it took me longer than a day to play through the Mozart piano sonatas. Yesterday I played carefully through the first five.

Mozart is a huge musical presence in my life. I connect with him differently than Bach. Bach is always there to satisfy my need for a certain king of beauty and meaning. I would call it a need for the genius of multiply textured treatment profound melodies combined with a Jazz like insistence of spinning out of rhythms and motives.

Mozart takes me to a different place, a place of holy playfulness and deep love of life.

It’s difficult to describe these connections of course. But they are clear inside me.

I have neglected the piano sonatas of Mozart in the last few years because I found them less satisfying than his violin sonatas and trio sonatas. In some ways this is a bit of a false distinction on my part possibly brought on by a bit of my own mimicking of academic snobbery.

When I returned the piano sonatas yesterday I realized how much they offer the performer/listener.

I am reminded of a quote from the late Christopher Small: “However trivial and banal the [musical] work may be that is the basis of the performance, meaning and beauty are created whenever any performer approaches it with love and with all the skill and care that he or she can bring to it.” (from Musicking: The Meaning of Performing and Listening.

Mozart of course is far from trivial and banal.

In the last few years I have noticed that the more care and love I use when playing, the better I connect with the music. This experience is not one of consciously summoning these but instead I experience a reaction to the music as I am playing that seems to draw me involuntarily more deeply into the music I am making. It feels more like something is happening to me than something I am bringing about. Consequently I find the experience one of being in the presence of beauty and even in the presence of a deep and resonant something speaking directly to and through me.