E ARE TOO WELL AWARE of the desolate landscape that has been created over the past hundred-some years by the debasing of the ancient and the “traditional” via the exaltation of the new, the novel, and the “innovative.” This holds true across the spectrum from the individual’s personal life to the global concept of human life in general. But in this article I want to illuminate an example of this – and how this trend is reversing – from the world of piano and chamber music.
The latest issue of Listen magazine (a Classical music quarterly published by Steinway) features an entertaining and insightful interview with Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida. Right from the start it becomes clear that, while she has mastered the works of composers running the whole gamut of the piano literature – from Bach to Mozart through Chopin to Debussy then Schoenberg – she definitively classifies a “Big Four” above the rest: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, with Chopin and Schumann close behind. She describes their greatness in terms of counterpoint and polyphony, harmonic and formal ingenuity and the like, but ultimately she seems to infer that their greatness lies most of all in the “transcendence” (my word, not hers) of their music, in that there seems to be an almost limitless depth of meaning and potential for interpretation – which would testify to the innate and exceptional quality of the music itself. This becomes most evident in an exchange in which the discussion touches on Mozart, then Schoenberg, then comparing the two:
[Uchida:] …The imagination and naturalness of Mozart’s music is that he was a person who could do something so ordinary, like being in the tonic. You come back to the tonic and it’s total magic, even mysterious. Being in the tonic in tonal music is not supposed to be mysterious.
[Finane—Listen Magazine:] It’s supposed to be terra firma.
Yes, exactly. Firmly having come home. And not the deliberate action of shaking the ground like Beethoven does at times. He knows that he is hitting the tonic, but he shakes it anyway, lets you know. It is a deliberate action, ‘a premeditated crime,’ as I say. But in Mozart’s case, you land there and you gasp at the mystery of the place you landed. That is genius; how could I understand something like that?
Is Mozart saying you can never really go home again?
No, he’s not. He’s not telling you anything. It’s not something he’s lecturing about, it’s just the feeling you get and you have to live with it. How do you transmit that mystery to other people who are with you? That is what you want to do as a performer. If you feel that you’ve reached a place of mystery, you want to share it with the audience. That is why I thought ‘I can’t do anything with these great people!’ But it’s a constant trial and error. That is why life is so fantastic!
You said that you had an early affinity for Schoenberg.
Yes. And he, of course, comes and goes as well. When I was in my mid-teens, he was more understandable to me than what I was playing. My performances were better than when I played Mozart or Beethoven, or Schubert even.
It must have been wonderful to work with [Pierre] Boulez with your Schoenberg recording [(Decca)]. After all, he is one of the great illuminators of that repertoire.
Yes, he really illuminates a score. The complicated score — in Boulez’s hands — he puts the light through and he can make it more understandable.
It is remarkable. But we need more Boulezes — and Uchidas, too — to shine the light. There’s still an audience disconnect.
Yes, but take Mozart as an example. He is incomparably more difficult to play than Schoenberg! Even now!
Because the music has something different to say, and you can’t ever hit it quite right.
Schoenberg’s message is clearer? He leaves less room for interpretation?
Quite clearer, though he does leave some room for interpretation. But it is just so impossibly difficult to play people like Mozart, and that is the beauty of it.
It’s funny, because we tend to associate Mozart with such transparency. At least from a listener’s perspective.
Have you heard so many wonderful Mozart interpretations? You are lucky….”
(Finane, Ben. “No Fixed Ideas.” Listen: Life With Classical Music. Fall 2014: 40-47.)
AFTER TRYING TO FORCE THE “modern music is so victimized and misunderstood” issue, you can almost hear the interviewer squirm and stammer to recover when Uchida declares that Mozart’s music is “incomparably more difficult” than Schoenberg’s, because of the difficulty in expressing its truest meaning and the breadth of possible interpretation: a claim which is so contrary to the music-academy mantra that the “new” music of the 20th century is supposedly so rich and momentous while the “old” stuff was stiff and stodgy! I know, I too tried to wrap my brain around that in college, but it never quite fit, and now I understand why – because it wasn’t true!
This may not have been Uchida’s explicit point in saying what she did, but when I read this, for me the light went on and the bell rang clearly: here is an exceptionally experienced pianist who has played an incredible amount of music, and her voice of exceptional experience is saying that Mozart’s music is much deeper and more meaningful than Schoenberg’s. The most poignant passage, that almost sent chills down my spine when I read it, was this:
“… But in Mozart’s case, you land there [the tonic] and you gasp at the mystery of the place you landed. That is genius; how could I understand something like that?…”
She is so correct; what a profound statement. I think this is very true of Bach and Chopin, too, and Wagner, in their own particular idioms. Pianist Andras Schiff made a strikingly similar observation in an introduction to his 2007 live recording of J.S. Bach’s six Partitas:
Great music is far greater than its performers. We try our entire lives to unveil its secrets and to convey its unique message. Even if we never quite reach the imaginary goal, our many performances give us experience and knowledge that were hidden from us years ago. We form a better understanding of its structure and inner workings. Horizons broaden before our eyes…
And really — really — just how many different ways can you interpret cacophony? random tone clusters? Or 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence? While it may provide some curious intellectual interest, still, noise is noise, no matter how you package it. To be clear, this is not a judgement on Schoenberg’s talent as a composer, as he was unquestionably an exceptional artist – one has to merely consider the artfulness of his craft regardless of the musical language he chose to use at any given time.
THE CRUX OF THE PROBLEM HERE is precisely in the language. The “beautiful” corresponds to nature, God’s ordered creation. In music, modal/tonal harmony most corresponds to nature. And any good student of music history knows that the rise of atonality was a willful rebellion against this natural order in music, the outright rejection of the natural hierarchy of God’s creation, to be replaced with a forced “equality” – very much a grave problem across all facets of human existence in the past century. One could almost consider 12-tone serialism as “atheistic communism” in music – the “forced equality” – with the important exception that in the human realm there were still a few – the ruling few – who benefited greatly while the rest of the people were crushed. Perhaps the analogous “few” in serialism would be the small, closed peer-group that actually “appreciated” this music, which reveals that this type of “art” only served to win favor from other “innovative” minds – but served no purpose for humanity in general. In fact, what was there to really “understand” in it, other than to recognize why we avoid noise?
But true music, crafted in accord with the laws of nature, touches the human soul in ways we will never fully be able to understand or document. The same music can speak clearly the same truth to the entire world, yet at the same time touch each individual soul in an exquisitely personal way. But noise….is noise.
The modern age has succeeded wildly at fooling humanity to embrace insanity as wisdom, ugliness as beauty, and noise as music. But I think I can sense that, with a growing sigh of long-awaited relief, humanity is increasingly letting go of this foolishness.
We hope you enjoyed this guest post by Thomas J. Mosser.