February 23rd, 2006

Put On A Happy Face

Jack avoided people. He liked to stay in his room and read Beckett or Joyce or Yeats, or sleep all afternoon, or, if atmospheric conditions were just right, he’d listen to the program of classical music from KDKA in Pittsburgh. Every Saturday, of course, he joined the family in the living room for the live Texaco Metropolitan Opera broadcast. Everyone said Jack had a great tenor voice, but he hardly ever sang, and toward the end he abandoned music altogether.

My mother said that before the illness permanently settled into Jack’s psyche he’d sit alone at the piano and play melancholy pieces. One afternoon my mother came in and heard him doing the Marcia funebre of the twelfth Beethoven Sonata. “Pretty gloomy stuff, eh?” he said.

Mom sat down, put her arm over his shoulder. She replied that it was indeed depressing, but then what about this sudden change of mood just two minutes into the movement? All these bright shimmering major chords in a triumphant and especially cheerful march? It brings a smile to your face, doesn’t it?

Jack shook his head. No, in this part Ludwig is being ironic and cynical. He’s saying, yes, there’s happiness in the world for a few lucky people, but the rest of us? Forget it. If I recall correctly, the man wrote fantastic music he could never actually hear himself, except in his imagination. How could he avoid negative thoughts?

Mom disagreed. No, Jackie, there isn’t anything cynical about these shimmering major chords, they’re the real thing—the pure joy of being alive on a sunny spring day. It’s unmistakable.

OK, he said, maybe you’re right. But so what? The key returns to minor and we resume the dirge, the lament, the procession to the graveyard. Which is precisely where we all end up sooner or later.

Oh, Jackie, don’t be such a sourpuss! Come on. Let’s dance!

My mom was like that. Always looking at the bright side.

Until, of course, she met my father.

Inappropriate Ideas

Miss X is barely 20 but nevertheless a first class violinist. She’s Chinese, from a family of ambassadors, managers, doctors, politicians. I asked if any of her relatives were musicians and she said no, not a single one of them going back seven generations ever was involved in the arts. She’s the first in the family to break entirely new ground. And she intends to be a world-famous soloist, once she gets her masters and Ph.D. from a prestigious California university, and of course gets some performing experience behind her.

She sent me one of her audition CDs. I played it with just a touch of reluctance because I expected her performance would be amateurish and I would then be obliged to offer some kind and supportive comments. But her playing was utterly flawless. Especially the Paganini concerto. Hers was a precise execution informed by an emotional, nuanced interpretation beyond her years.

I took the disk to goldhands and asked him to tell me what he thought of the performance. I did not mention Miss X’s age, or background. Maestro put on the earphones and I qued up the Paganini track.

Maestro’s response was immediate and to the point: “Perfect!” he proclaimed. And he was surprised to learn she was a mere girl, just starting out.

Miss X and I carried on an IM correspondence for a while. I found it strange that she had virtually no interest in the life of the composers. For her it was just the music itself, independent of anything else. I gently suggested that if she were to become familiar with the masters’ histories, she’d likely be better able to convey the emotions that drove them.

“How so?” she asked.
“Well, all the assonance, dissonance and odd syncopation in Tchaikovski’s Pathetique might have sprung from the difficulties he was experiencing at the time he wrote that symphony.”
“I don’t know anything about that. What sort of difficulty?”
“Let’s just say that Pyotr Il’yich had a severe sexual identity problem.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“No. He was secretly gay but nevertheless married a woman. And he was profoundly traumatized by the whole thing.”

After a long, awkward silence Miss X said:

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think I want to continue this conversation.”

I thought that was the end of it, but there was a little bit more.

I told Maria (my very own Immortal Beloved) about Miss X’s audition CD, and also about the discussion of my theory of the benefits of biographism. Intrigued, Maria asked me for Miss X’s screen name. Why? Well, Maria thought it would be interesting to become acquainted with a highly talented 20-year-old Chinese musician, that’s why.

A few days later Maria reported that Miss X had been deeply offended by my absurd and wholly inappropriate ideas about composers, and she feared I might be some sort of whacked-out and perverted stalker. I mean, why does he bring up all that sexual stuff anyway?

And by the way, she said. That creepy old fart doesn’t know a damned thing about music!