ODAY, I SHALL present three main ideas, which I label as “cities.” This is my small attempt to play off Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel. Hopefully, the “three cities” will end up presenting a “coherent whole” to readers brave enough to read from beginning to end. Most will not, because readers generally eschew long blogs.
CITY NUMBER 1
When it comes to many of today’s pianists, I am not moved by their playing. On the one hand, they play all the notes perfectly, in tempo. But there is so much more to music than just playing the notes!
During my high school years, I devoured every pianist interview I could find. For some reason, I read through these incredibly quickly . . . with 100% comprehension! To this day, I still remember a fair amount of what I read. I’d even go to the library and read old concert reviews from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Incidentally, here’s a “strange but true” fact: in the 1930s, judging by the magazine covers, it seems like the two people most featured by American journalists were Arturo Toscanini and . . . Adolf Hitler!
Anyway, during an interview, Vladimir Horowitz once quoted a Chinese Proverb: “Do not seek to follow in the master’s footsteps. Seek what he sought.” In other words, the externals don’t matter: how fast Richter plays this run, where Godowski employs staccato, where Gieseking begins his crescendo, where Friedman starts his ritardando, and so forth. What matters is the musical effect: what were they after? What were they trying to say?
Speaking of “what they were trying to say,” it turns out the different “interpretations” by the great pianists can be likened to the different ways of talking. In future blogs, I hope to explain what I mean: it’s actually pretty fascinating how well that analogy fits. I’m headed down a rabbit hole here, so let’s take a break and listen to an excerpt:
That is a marvelous “live” performance, by the way. You can hear the complete performance here (7261). I should probably remind everybody that “virtuoso” doesn’t just denote speed. It has more to do with articulation and execution of certain musical ideas. For example, Horowitz plays the climactic section of Chopin’s Ab Major Ballade rather slowly compared to others (Friedman, Richter, Rachmaninov, etc.), but because of his musical ideas and articulation, it comes across much more “virtuosic” than, for example, Richter’s lightning-speed performance of Chopin’s Etude in C# Minor (Op. 10, No. 4).
Allow me just one more quote. Speaking about the great Alfred Cortot, a more contemporary pianist has noted, “It is but a little distance from the sublime to the absurd.” I could not agree more with whomever said that (I think it was Gregory Sandor). The fact is, great pianists (Alfred Cortot, Josef Hofmann, Edwin Fischer, etc.) push the limits so much, trying to create their musical statements, their playing sometimes ends up sounding “absurd” or “incoherent.” And yet, for those of us who understand the fantastic musical ideas they were attempting to present, there’s a world of difference between the “incoherence” of, let’s say, a Glenn Gould, and the “incoherence” of an amateur pianist who struggles to play the notes. There’s a lot more I would like to say (especially about “Glenn Gould the Virtuoso”) but I must stop, lest my article start to sound incoherent!
CITY NUMBER 2
When it comes to the “sacro-pop” played in Catholic churches these days — that is, music written in a secular style, performed in church in spite of legislation to the contrary — the performers don’t have an issue “seeking what the master sought.” In other words, they perform that music skillfully and artistically. Their performances just “work.” There is very little that could be added to these to make them better. Indeed, music in this style was specifically conceived to sound good performed by guitarist, singer, and microphone. So, what’s the problem? What’s the issue?
The problem is that music written in a secular style — Broadway, Rock, Rap, Polka, etc. — is not appropriate for worship in the Roman Rite. Many times, I’ve heard people say, “There’s nothing wrong with praise and worship music for Mass: it just isn’t presented well most of the time.” I couldn’t disagree more. Where praise and worship is done, it’s usually done quite well. Again, the problem is that praise and worship is not an appropriate style of music for the Catholic Mass.
CITY NUMBER 3
Finally, let us consider the situation of church musicians who are attempting to follow the Church teachings on Sacred music. Obviously, the task is daunting: so many obstacles to overcome! Political, theological, physical, psychological, and (oh, yes!) musical. After all, just learning to play an instrument well is a difficult task, a lifelong task.
However, I do believe one of the downfalls of some church musicians is identical to that of many “classical music” conductors/performers these days, and here it is: they cannot tell what the master sought. That is to say, they don’t know what sounds good. Perhaps I should phrase that differently: They choose to ignore what they know sounds bad, because they strongly desire to perform difficult music. Do you know what I mean?
A typical example would be when the director allows his choir to “break out into SATB” when it would have been wiser to stay in unison. By breaking into SATB, the result becomes weak, incoherent, flawed, breaks tempo, and includes wrong notes, whereas staying in unison would have produced much better music. Do I make myself clear?
Pope Pius XII said it very well in his 1958 Instruction on Sacred Music:
60. (a) As a general rule it is better to do something well, however modest, than to attempt something more elaborate without the proper means.
In another English translation:
60. (a) And in general it is better to do something well on a small scale than to attempt something elaborate without sufficient resources to do it properly.
YOU’RE PROBABLY THINKING: “Wow, Jeff. You are incredibly arrogant! How does insulting people help them?”
I don’t want to insult anyone. I just want to suggest three (3) items that may prove helpful:
1. Listen to and follow the advice of Pope Pius XII (above).
2. No matter how painful this might be, use a tape recorder at your Mass next week so you can hear what your parishioners hear each Sunday. Make sure it sounds good. If not, choose simpler music or work even harder to train your singers.
3. Consider a balanced approach, such as the one I describe here.
Finally, please don’t think I am picking on amateur church musicians. Actually, I have in mind many professional conferences I’ve attended over the years. Having performed a 5-part piece of Renaissance polyphony, such-and-such a director seems proud of himself, but I find myself thinking, “The singers were not together, the range exceeded their capabilities, the vocal quality was not good, wrong notes were everywhere, and the acoustic was bad. Why did he attempt such a difficult piece? Did he really think it sounded good?”