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Trivial Pursuits.

December 18, 2007 at 4:24 AM

I had the first rehearsal with piano this morning with the music teacher at my school. We have to do a half hour recital of short works for kids at a number of venues. The lady in question graduated from a medium level music institute has had lessons with the top player in the region and clearly plays quite well with a lot of unrealized potential. However, working on Rubenstein`s melodie in f it became apparent that she is a typical product of the general approach to teaching music, especially piano, in Japan: roughly, the player is rarely instructed in the use of color, rubatos or character. It’s always depressing to come across this when you can sense the player has the potential inside for all this stuff to come out. It was delightful to very quickly find how receptive she was to thinking about the difference in character between the same passage p or pp; about why the two line melody should not be played the same if you want to keep your audience; how long a phrase actually is etc. Thinking about this afterwards, having had to try and articulate both with playing and through singing and gesture what I felt was in the Rubenstein beyond the printed page motivated me to write this blog which has been floating around in a bowl of prune juice for quite a while.
It may well just be me projecting my own foibles, but does anyone get the feeling that violinists as a breed are curiously resistant to learning trivial little vignettes, bonbons or whatever you want to call them these days? Assuming this is sort of the case, I think there are a number of possible explanations. First of all,the great players of the past (Kreisler, Elman, Heifetz , Milstein et al) played these pieces so well it sometimes seems foolhardy to offer up new recordings, and perhaps players are a little afraid to offer themselves up for comparison to Perlman who was still playing these works superbly in recital until extremely recently. Or maybe the influence of musical scholarship, stylistic discipline, not just baroque but even 19th century has led to a questionable belief that these are the sole criteria for evaluating music. Or even, that today’s teaching standards are soooo much higher than before that lesser talents are playing to a much higher level. The result being a whole generation of players who can sort of get through quite a few concertos and believe this is the single criteria for being a famous soloist which lets face it, most of us aspire too. Shhhhh.
Whatever, I have found repeatedly in Japan that programs demanded by presenters are required to have a much higher percentage of `trivial` works than I see in concert reviews from other countries. I initially resisted this simply because the demand was –always- for Zigeunerweisen, Humoresque and Liebeslied- pieces that frankly don’t interest me at all! However, as time has passed I have added more and more nonsense pieces to programs and have learned the error of my ways, my own foolishness.
Starting off by really sitting down with pencil and score and working out what the heck Elman and out of what I had hitherto dismissed as beginner pieces such as the Beethoven Menuett in G, I began to see how these kind of works can help one dig really deep into what the violin can actually produce in a way that learning yet another major concerto tends not to. These kinds of works have become pure gold to me to a) teach myself and b) really discipline my students to work at every fine detail of any work rather than just rattling off another slipshod performance en route (the wrong route) to the Mendelssohn. Just as an example considers the wealth of high level music/technique represented in a simple context the aforementioned Beethoven Menuett contains.
What does con grazia mean? What image (s) motivate the work? What is the opening dynamic? This will influence how much bow you use in the first bar. Is the first bar cresc or dim. Both are musically possible and require different use of bow speed. Bow speed, bow speed, bow speed! C natural followed immediately by c#. Students must understand the technique of diamond versus square shaped finger. What colors do you want in the first four bars? This will dictate the strings you use and the shifts. The shifts have to be worked out and practiced until the nth degree. What Drew was talking about in his blog on shifting- if you can’t hit the guide note every time then you can’t play this simple piece in tune in a concert. Don’t kid yourself. What is the dynamic of the second phrase? Is it louder, softer or the same as the first? Contact point, contact point ! The Trio section- requires a perfect spicatto and the ability to mix legato with it. Musical decisions have to be made about changing the lengths of notes. Typically this work has the whole trio played with the first two notes slurred and then a crisp and relentless spicatto thrown in. Listen to Elman playing it and one suddenly realizes how boring this is. It wasn’t the work that was trite- it was the player. The length and dynamic of every note has to be worked out to the nth degree to express the music- it requires a huge amount of attention to decide how you want this to be and to get it fixed there.
Anyway my final thought on the subject is that however beneath our regard Traumeri, the Swan or Blumenlied is, it’s what audiences still enjoy listening to.

From Willie M
Posted on December 18, 2007 at 6:13 AM
a kreisler miniature won't get you into Juilliard or help you win the next competition. after all, playing the violin is about impressing judges, who are experts.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 18, 2007 at 6:24 AM
not sure if I understand the tone of your response to be honest.
To some extent I feel you missed my point- it`s not so much a question of `a kreisler minature` but rather a balanced diet that includes music of a `level`that requires the performer to dig real deep because the content is somewhat limited (not in a particularly negative sense) Such an approach actually might actually be very useful in developing the skills to get into Julliard or win competitions. It also begs the quertion `does everyone actually want to just get into Julliard or win competitioos?` I know I joked about that being the case but it is such a limited and inaccurate view of why people play the instrument. The dreams and ambitions are much more varied than that.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 18, 2007 at 6:31 AM
on the other hand, if you were being mildly sarcastic you didn`t miss a trick and we are in complete agreement.;)
From janet griffiths
Posted on December 18, 2007 at 7:10 AM
This christmas my 14 - 16 year old students(just the right age to swarm in romantic ideas) are putting on a Soireè Romantique.Their parents can enjoy a choclate box assortment of Beethoven Romance , Kreisler , Monti , Wenzel (ever heard of him ,super goo) and many others.Its a wonderful way to explore range and colour and try different vibrato styles. Then to add to the atmosphere the music will be served with panettone and spumanti (Italian Christmas goodies).I think my non expert parents will be well entertained and the applause will be warm and meanigfull after the spumante.For years they listen to the same succession of concerts which are standard repetoire finally a bit of fun.
From Albert Justice
Posted on December 18, 2007 at 8:15 AM
It's a double edged curved sword Buri--I agree with you about not moving on in a rush...

I think a lot of young folks just aren't ready to bring that dynamic out--, in a breath?

Here's an experience. One of the first classical music pieces I remember was children's classical musicals.

I was probably around five or six. Even though I only knew a few songs then, I started this journey of making the piano tell a story, because of that I think. Around that time I also remember my senior uncle, being just a fantastic story-teller.

Rhythm? What rhythm--noise! you bet. And for quite some time, it never really got better--not too awful long--the Beatles came along.

But along the way, I'd spread the left and right hands for effect, switch melody to the left hand, do it all in the lower ranges, upper ranges--and so forth.

Along these lines on a slightly more technical level semantically, I started experimenting with rests and rhythms for effect, arpeggio speed diversity, and so on.

So while most young people were learning Hanon, I was learning expression I think. Fortunately Hanon saved my butt later-seriously.

Sadly though, I have not an inkling how to teach courage and musicality in dynamic, other than to share my experience.

From Christian Abel
Posted on December 18, 2007 at 8:31 AM
Short, musical "bonbons" like this are called "svisker" in Norwegian.

Svisker = prunes

From Tara Shaw
Posted on December 18, 2007 at 2:33 PM
What a timely blog. I've been thinking about this lately. Obviously, I'm only on Suzuki book 5-6, so my "easy" pieces are quite easy, but the other day I picked up book 3 and started thinking about the things you described, and I thought I should do more of it. Go back to the works that I don't have to struggle with the notes, and really make music. I have tended to rush through things, and my musical abilities (not just my violin playing abilities) need to be honed.

I think I'll do some of that this week, too, in conjunction with my bowing work. Should be a good mix.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on December 18, 2007 at 2:42 PM
So, I don't like Humoresque and Liebeslied (or Liebesfreud or Schoen Rosmarin) either, but I am still finding myself very much in sync with what the gist you're writing.

Coming back to playing stringed instruments as an adult amateur, and starting to play the viola as I have, there just doesn't seem to be much point for me to be spending my time trying to learn big violin concertos. When would I ever play them, except in the practice room and for my teacher? And so I've had to look for pieces to learn that I can play at church and the farmers' market and the like for non-classically trained audiences, those Bon-Bons.

And that journey has gotten me thinking much more about dynamics, building phrases, tone, and those kinds of issues, than I remember ever doing in the past when I received more "standard" violin student training.

Keep the suggestions and thoughts coming!

From Christopher Ciampoli
Posted on December 18, 2007 at 8:04 PM
I don't mean to be rude to anyone or for interrupting the discussion but it's "Liebesleid" not "Liebeslied" =)

Quite entirely different meanings

From Corwin Slack
Posted on December 18, 2007 at 8:02 PM
If we could play Humoresque or Liebeslied we might like it better. My teacher was once approached by a young pofessional who wanted to program Humoresque and wanted some coaching in the romantcic style. Teacr declined. He didn't have enough years to give the project.

I don't play them to anyone's satisfaction but one of the blessings of being an adult amateur is that I have no concerto burden. No one will ever hear my play a concerto so I don't study them.

I work on scales, etudes and miniatures. (And some solo Bach) That is basically all. I'll consider a sonata but those opportunities are nearly as rare as concerto opportunities.

It just occurred to me that maybe its people like me who give the miniatures a bad name... Hmmm...

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on December 18, 2007 at 11:29 PM
Thanks Christopher! You're right, Liebesleid is "Love's Sorrow" (from "leiden," to suffer), in contrast to Liebesfreud, "Love's Joy". I'd been thinking of Liebeslied, which I think would be something like "Love's Song" (from "Lieder," not entirely inappropriate, just not what Kreisler wrote). I should know better, seeing as I actually speak some German. But we're not the only ones to make the mistake: if you Google Liebeslied, you get all kinds of related stuff.
From Patrick Harris
Posted on December 19, 2007 at 3:57 AM
Liebesfreud a "nonsense piece"? Wow, we are being very PC.
Do you not think in retrospect you are being a wee bit harsh on poor Kreisler? Why not use the dubious word "salon" piece, and have a clearer conscience!
From Patrick Harris
Posted on December 19, 2007 at 4:02 AM
p.s. Good point about Elman's wonderful Minuet in G.
From Roy Sonne
Posted on December 19, 2007 at 4:22 AM
Well, Buri, I'm still not quite sure how you feel about the "Trivial" works. I think you arrive at the conclusion that you have a healthy respect for the artistry it takes to play them well but you really don't like them all that much. Well, that's a very valid POV.

My own outlook is somewhat different. For me there is nothing trivial about the music of Fritz Kreisler. His compositions are works of genius. He is a unique and inspired composer occupying a worthy place in the pantheon of great composers. His music also shows craftsmanship of the highest order.

The masterpieces of Kreisler and others of the genre have never gone out of fashion. They have been lovingly played by the great violinists in every decade since they were written. Granted there is a segment of the population that looks down on them -- I dare say it is the same people who look down on Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. But the great artists and the members of the music loving public have never lost their affection for this music.

Somewhere along the line somebody got the idea that the only "serious" musical compositions were large scale works which were called Symphonies, Sonatas, Concertos, etc. Probably they would regard the following as "trivia":
Chopin Waltzes, Polonaises, Mazurkas
Schubert Impromptus, Lieder
Mendelssohn Songs without words
Dvorak Slavonic Dances
Debussy Preludes and other short works

Enough said.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 19, 2007 at 5:10 AM
Roy, the trivial is tongue in cheek. I love this stuff. Posisbly my favorite CD of all time is Milstein playing miniatures which includes air on a g string, Traumerai, tye broad with the pretty long haircut and so forth. Never get tired of the subtlety of Milsteins Art. If it wa sa lesser great player I would probably not come back to it so often.

Like all types of music, some is better than others. The best of Kreisler are miniature masterpieces by a very gifted composer-incomparable. There is plenty of otehr stuff of similar worth. For me it boils down to the simple thing that I love playing the violin, making the best music I can and since these pieces were written to entertain rathe rthan enlighten that is what one pours herat and soul into and the rewards are commensurate.
I reserve the right to not enjoy Ziugeunerweisen anymore. I think I may have a bad smell associate dwith it.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on December 19, 2007 at 11:50 AM
I might have some of the CD you're talking about, on the original vinyl, at my parent's house. One is called Milstein Miniatures and the other is called Encores. A tune from one of them called "Dancing Doll" has been stuck in my head a long time.

I have a hard time calling anything trivial, because I have a hard time objectively defining that. I've never seen anyone else define it to my satisfaction either. The closest I might be able to get might be to say if it's simple in every way, then it's trivial. But there's probably nothing that simple.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on December 19, 2007 at 12:53 PM
On the other hand, everything is trival if your microscope is broken enough :)
From Peter Kent
Posted on December 19, 2007 at 8:33 PM
Perhaps there exists a major difference between trivial and easy...Kreisler works are NOT easy from any point of view...nor in the picture of recitals and personal development are they trivial...However, the Handel and Mozart Sonatas, while not single movt. bonbons, are superficially easy...Has anyone ever peformed one to their complete satisfaction ? Perhaps this was a portion of the point Stern was making when near the end of his career as he'd program an entire recital of Mozart, and while many were disappointed at the lack of flash, the amount of musianship was overwhelming.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 19, 2007 at 10:23 PM
Jim, it`s intersting how people react to my somewhat tongue in cheek use of the word trivial. The older I get the more trivial evrythign seems ot become. Nothing negative about it. life`s just so much fun when nothing is so important;)
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on December 20, 2007 at 4:15 AM
"The older I get the more trivial evrythign seems ot become"

Definitely! I think the problem is that people like you, and therefore want to make sure, for themselves, that you and others reading don't miss things that could give them enjoyment.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 20, 2007 at 10:34 PM
I think that makes sense.;)

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