confession from a collaborative pianist

Thanks for all the suggestions, folks. It's nice to know a few people are actually interested in what I think about music-related topics. I've got several potential posts brewing in my head, but for today I think I'll start with a list. This is inspired in large part by Feral Mom's recent post, a confessional of books she's never read, despite the fact that she is getting a PhD in English. (For the record, I've read every single one on her list except Moby Dick, and I'm sure I'll never read it. Blech. Melville + eleventy-thousand pages about a sailor = instant cure for insomnia...come to think of it, maybe I should have tried to read Moby Dick in late pregnancy. That might have done the trick. Ah, I digress.)

So here's my own list of Music That I Would Not Normally Own Up to Not Knowing. As of a few weeks ago, I have a doctorate, a DMA in collaborative piano, and there's a whole bunch of stuff I never learned, and it's a crying shame I got away with that. Some of this I avoided because I don't like it (though I'll be sure to do a separate "music I hate/strongly dislike" post sometime in the future), and some of it I just never got around to.

1. Winterreise by Franz Schubert. You'll notice that the first three items on this list are major song cycles. Not just that, but they're major song cycles from 19th century Germany. Winterreise (winter's journey) is 24 songs that take over an hour to perform, and it's basically a guy who dies of self-pity because things didn't work out with his girlfriend. Schubert wrote the cycle in the last weeks of his life as he was dying of syphilis at the tender age of 33. All this adds up to make one depressing piece of music. If you learn Winterreise in the winter, you seriously have to be careful not to get depressed. Anyway, it's one of the most important song cycles ever written. Why haven't I learned it? Partly lack of opportunity. Women don't ever sing this cycle because it's all from a man's point of view (as is most of the poetry from this period), and since there just aren't as many male singers out there, the chance didn't come up while I was in grad school. I should have studied it on my own, but I was always busy practicing for actual performances of other stuff. Plus, playing Schubert practically gives me hives, as I'll explain next...

2. Schönemüllerin by same. Schönemüllerin is one of the other Greatest Hits of 19th century German music. And again, one of the main reasons I've never played it is the opportunity thing. By now you might be wondering why I never took the initiave and sought out someone to sing this with me. Time for the truth: I'm not much of a Schubert pianist. (The professor I studied with the last five years is a great Schubertian, so I've never confessed this to her outright, but she's also quite a perceptive person and musician, so she's surely figured it out by now.) I know that Schubert was a genius in his piano accompaniments, and they all makes sense when someone else spells it out for me, but I'm pretty dense when I have to figure them out on my own. Like Graham Johnson at Songfest, for example (how I worship that man). What sounds to me like just another broken chord pattern turns out to be the chirping of a cricket or the babbling of a brook or the slow descent into madness of a man suffering from unrequited love (common theme in 19th century poetry and music, as it turns out). Another thing that makes Schubert really difficult is that a lot of his songs are strophic, particularly in Schönemüllerin. This means you get the same exact music for several verses, and since each verse says something different, you have to find a way to make the same notation sound different to go with the text. Some people see this as a worthy challenge. I just get a little weary of it.

3. Dichterliebe by Robert Schumann. Another 19th century German song cycle written by and for a dude (sigh), though the great soprano Barbara Bonney bucked the trend and recorded it. Go her! It's about time someone had the ovaries to do that. I've heard Dichterliebe, and I like it, but I have to admit that except for a few of the individual songs, I don't know much about it. Too bad, really.

4. 12 Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson by Aaron Copland. Oh, Copland. How I've tried to like your music, I really have. And your Dickinson songs are favorites of many people out there, including my professor at the yoo-dub. Sure, I enjoy a good rendition of Rodeo and that piece with the Shaker melody (the exact title of which escapes me now), but beyond that, I just can't get excited about your music. That your Emily Dickinson songs are among the most famous of settings of her poetry, and that they are among the most important songs in the 20th century American repertoire makes me slightly ashamed that I've never learned them. But until someone pays me, and pays me well (they're hard), to perform them, I probably won't bother.

5. Kreutzer Sonata by L.v. Beethoven. This is probably the most famous sonata Beethoven wrote for violin and piano (there are ten in all). Man is it great, and man is it hard. Playing it, like much of Beethoven's music, especially the early and middle stuff, takes machismo. I want to learn it one day. I just haven't yet.

6. The Prokofiev flute sonata. Every flutist plays this piece, along with most violinists, so it's a wonder how I got through five years in a collaborative program without ever being asked to accompany it. I have no objection to the Prokofiev sonata, either. It's a nice piece, the scherzo movement is especially fun, and as Russian music goes, it's not even that hard to play. I'd certainly rather play it than some of the other schlock out there written for the flute (and believe me, there's a lot of it). But for whatever reason, this one passed me by.

I'm sure I could think of many more items to add to this list, but this is all I feel like owning up to today. Besides, it's taken me all weekend to get this post done, and the power in our house is flickering on and off (thank-you-very-much-stupid-ice-storm-have-I-mentioned-how-sick-I-am-of-Wisconsin?), so I better publish before I lose the whole thing.


Pamela said…
You HAVE to at least check out "Heart We Will Forget Him" and "The World Feels Dusty" in the Copland set. They are both really beautiful. I am able to sort of play the piano part on "Heart" but can't yet sing along. I can pretty much sing and play the other, but when you see it, you'll realize that's no great feat. I did 5 or so of these on my Master's recital at NEC and they really, really grew on me. "Nature, the Gentlest Mother" is one I never thought I'd really like, but I love it now. I actually prefer the piano versions to the orchestral. And, I love Barbara Bonney's recording. I'd be happy to send you her version and/or my own if I've piqued your interest at all. :-)
Feral Mom said…
Awesome post! I would love to hear what you think the schlockiest pieces for flute are. Maybe I'd still be able to play some of them without too much brushing up.
Animal said…
I'm SO with you in terms of running hot-&-cold on Copland! "Great American scion of composition," yadda yadda yadda. Whatever. Ballets are great (especially "Appalachian Spring"!), as are lots of his straight-ahead symphonic works. But, the one & only piece he wrote for band, in the 1960s, is so bizarre and unwieldy that it makes me shudder.
Yes, I agree with Feral Mom. We MUST hear about schlocky flute pieces! I remember trying to find solo materials for competitions, and wondering at all the pure shite out there!
Steph said…
On the flute schlock question, I'll just soar in and three-quarters of what was written by French composers for the flute between the years of, say, 1885 and 1940 should be cast on the burning pile with nylon pink tutus.

I LOVE Schonemullerin, But I can see how the endless strophic purgatory could get to the pianist.
Mrs. Allroro said…
I'd also like to hear, "Why Dolly Parton."
Anonymous said…
Copland has always been one of my least favorite composers, and it may be my influence that rubbed off on Suze. Every 4th of July when I tune in to my favorite classical music stations they say, "Today we are honoring American composers." I groan, because they always start with Copland. Is he the best we can do? I agree with mrs. alloro, I'd rather hear Dolly Parton, salsa music, much popular music, etc. And not to fell icons, but it is always followed by Leonard Bernstein, whose genius I appreciate, but whose music has never been my favorite either.
Elrena said…
I just stumbled across your blog recently, and now I'm reading a bunch of your archives, and various blogs you link to! You've got a great little corner of the blogosphere, here.

Anyway, I just had to say hi because I have a book coming out about balancing motherhood and academia, and I saw in your profile that you're an academic mama! My book is an essay anthology called Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life, and it's due out in July from Rutgers University Press. I'd love to add you to our mailing list; if you're interested, just let me know!

And good luck with the ice and snow...
This is hysterical - every pianist has a list like this in the back of their mind. Thanks for the giggle.

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