What's left and what's lost

On my desk this week has been Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. This concerto is probably the most well known of the numerous works commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who sought new body of repertoire after losing his right arm on the Eastern Front during the First World War. From what I have been discovering about Wittgenstein this week, he seems a fascinatingly complex personality. Though self-possessed enough to envisage restarting his musical career after the horrific loss of his right arm, it is hard not to read his absolute insistence on sole performing rights – for life – of all of the works he commissioned and arranged as a sign of underlying insecurity. Wittgenstein famously said of his decision to maintain exclusive performance rights “You don’t build a house just so that someone else can live in it.” This seems a particularly apt metaphor to Wittgenstein's way of thinking, suggesting the kind of security of continued engagements that he might have envisaged from his exclusive repertoire of works from notable contemporary composers: these pieces would, in a sense, house his career.

Wittgenstein’s exclusivity of performing rights was upheld in a sometimes maddeningly dogmatic way, extending even to those commissions he had no interest in. Refusing to play Paul Hindemith’s Klaviermusik (1924) claiming that he found it incomprehensible, the score was buried and only surfaced again in 2002. A similar situation transpired with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.4 (1931), Wittgenstein refusing to play the piece until he felt he had comprehended it fully. In fact he would never perform the work, though it was premiered during his lifetime by the German pianist Siegfried Rapp in 1956. (Rapp, like Wittgenstein, had lost an arm in combat on the Eastern Front, his injury occurring during the Second World War.) Wittgenstein fell out with Ravel after making alterations to the Left Hand Concerto before its 1932 premiere. However, though the two never reconciled, it is notable that whilst many of the composers commissioned by Wittgenstein later arranged their pieces for piano two hands, Ravel refused to do so, and indeed fought to stop performances of an unsanctioned two hand version of the Left Hand Concerto made by the pianist Alfred Cortot.

To my mind Ravel’s insistence that the piece not be adapted to two hands speaks to the way that its “lefthandedness” is written into the work. In the piano’s first entrance we hear chains of indeterminate triads (the octave and the dominant). Were this a two handed concerto then it would be easy to imagine this first entrance being written as octaves in both hands – consider the opening of the Grieg, also in A minor, for example. By adding the fifth to the octave Ravel not only gains some richness in the single-handed texture, and also connects the piano’s first entry to a sonority made familiar in the orchestral introduction, built as it is around a stack of perfect fourths (E-A-D-G). Aside from these pitches (just about) fitting within the compass of one hand, they are also the four open strings of the double bass that plays them, and it seems significant that the opening six bars are, in effect, written for one-handed double bass. This strikes me as one of several ways in which Ravel uses the idea of the “limitations” in a single-handed piano concerto as a source of inspiration for the piece.

All of this is to say, then, that to rewrite the concerto with a right hand part would ignore the way in which the orchestral parts support and affirm the its absence in the concerto. Indeed, it seems to me that we might be encouraged to hear this piece as much as a piano concerto for a missing right hand, reminiscent as it is of the elegiac quality one hears in those musical reflections of friends lost in the Great War in Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin. The musical world of Wittgenstein’s childhood home – where Brahms, Mahler, and Strauss were all guests – seems very distant from the Jazz-infused atmosphere of the early 1930s that Ravel captures in the Left Hand Concerto. And yet given Wittgenstein’s noted hostility towards music he felt he did not “understand” I think that we must acknowledge Ravel’s extraordinary achievement in crafting a piece that spoke as much to the technical possibilities of a work for left hand alone, as it did to the complex emotions and personality of the pianist who commissioned it. 

Reviews and Resolutions

The start of a New Year is always an appropriate time for a little self-reflection, and perhaps making some resolutions for the year to come. Given that it has been a little while since I’ve posted something on the blog, my first resolution is to establish a more regular rhythm of writing. Over the last few months I have been travelling a great deal, creating a lack of routine, and the absence of a familiar place to work. As I sit at my desk at home writing this now there’s a certain degree of focus on the task in hand that has been missing of late. However, I think the experience has also highlighted for me what a useful personal discipline a routine of writing is, regardless of limitations: taking the time to set out my thoughts and ideas about conducting, music, and the intersection between the two gives a little space each week for some regular, meaningful self-reflection.

Pausing to consider what has happened and what is to come is a common pastime as the calendars roll over into a new year. I've always rather enjoyed those “Year in Review” articles and shows that appear during the week between Christmas and the New Year. Though I imagine that these are produced frantically in the early days of December to let journalists enjoy some time off during the slow news period after Christmas, I think they can provide a service to all of us in focusing our attention on the significant milestones of the year gone by. And given how Christmas can make it feel that time is going very quickly (doesn’t it seem like only yesterday that you or your child were bursting with anticipation to tear off the wrapping paper from a much anticipated gift?) these reviews tend to have the opposite effect, revealing just how much has been packed into the space of 365 days.

The companions of the annual reviews are the articles that make predictions for the next twelve months. I imagine that in a year where expert prediction has – at least in the field of politics – taken a pretty severe blow to its reputation, commentators are probably hedging their bets, aware that the unexpected can and might well come to pass again. Nevertheless, informed predictions tend to be a fairly reliable because more often than not the patterns of human behaviour can be guessed at from passed examples. I wonder, though, if predictions for the New Year and the idea of making a New Year’s resolution aren’t in opposition. Doesn’t the resolution suggest that we find something significant enough in the arbitrary changing of the calendar year to stir our willpower into making a change to our usual, predictable, way of doing things?

I imagine that these two ideas operate in such radically different spheres that few political commentators have given much thought to the way that world leaders’ New Year’s resolutions might shape policy in 2017. But – call it the optimism of a New Year – I think it is good to be reminded of the fact that predictions are not prescriptions: be that in the field of world events, or in the aims and goals of our professional lives. In carving out a little time to review achievements of the year past – performances given, new pieces learned, breakthroughs in old pieces – I’ve found an interesting mix of satisfaction in work achieved, and the desire to tackle, head-on, more or bigger challenges in the year ahead. When the final days of 2017 come around and we consider our own “Year in Review”, what are the unpredictable things that we going to be able look back on with pride, knowing that we made them happen?

Chant and Chat

There’s definitely something to be said for stepping outside of your comfort zone, and that was certainly the situation when a friend of mine invited me to come to give a guest lecture on Gregorian chant for the church history class he teaches at a seminary. The idea was that by exploring music developed and disseminated during the ninth and tenth centuries these students might given some sort of bridge into this period that they were studying, separated from us as it is by centuries of turbulent history and radically different world-views. I think that this lecture turned out effectively in terms of giving the students some sort of introduction to the topic. For myself, though, it ended up being quite a learning experience, both in terms of seeing some interesting connections between music that is so different in style and function from orchestral music, and for provoking questions about how to talk about music with an audience.

Though I’d studied Gregorian chant at university the memories of this felt almost as historically remote as the topic itself. Re-familiarizing myself with this subject it became clear that the history of Gregorian chant was rather more to do with questions of politics and identity in the church in Western Europe than it was with the development of a certain musical language or style. There is a notable repetition in the refrain heard over the centuries about Gregorian chant’s appropriateness for worship because of the way it interconnected churches not only in different regions and countries, but also through time, providing an unbroken tradition linking worshipers past, present, and future. I couldn’t help but be struck by some historiographical similarities in this dialogue about chant and the way we often talk about the pan-national and pan-temporal enjoyment of the greatest works of classical music. And though I wouldn’t consider attending a church service and attending a concert to be the same thing, there was something quite touching for me about the imagery of the stones of a church reverberating with the same chant offered in worship over centuries in the same way that concert halls might somehow contain the memory of the numerous performances that have happened there.

Gregorian chant is intricately connected with its function within worship, both on a local level as structural points within an individual service, and on a more global level in terms of the linkages it creates between the weeks, months, and seasons within the church’s liturgical year. However intricate or beautiful any particular piece of chant might be, much of it exists for use only on particular days of the year, and chant that does not have its use so precisely defined is selected in part because of its compatibility with those works that are performed only on one day. There are some obvious parallels to be drawn in the way that we might programme a concert, both as a question of compatibility of pieces, and also in those pieces which – to borrow a term – appear on solemnities. I’m thinking here of those works with some sort of national(-ist) quality like Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1. Moreover, there’s also the intriguing question as to whether the natural restrictions applied to chant by the intention of its use at certain points within church services is paralleled in the way that classical music is written for concerts in a hall; occasions that have their own kind of rubric.

One of the challenges I faced in giving this lecture was explaining the concept of the church modes that chant is written in to students who had little or no musical training. This is probably the thing that took the longest in my preparation, particularly as I kept challenging myself to find an explanation that was accurate and clear without falling into a music theory lexicon I couldn’t expect them to know. In the questions afterwards someone said that they had understood my explanation of the different modes, but to his untrained ear they all sounded the same: was this just a question of needing further exposure, or was it something different? I think the fairest answer I could give was to say both were the case. Whilst one can become better attuned to hearing the difference in modes in the way one might be able to identify regional accents in voices, no amount of training or exposure lets us un-hear all of the music not written in church modes that we are more familiar with. It was a fascinating question, though, because it sprung from the first reaction to the music: what we hear, rather than what we begin to rationalize and order through our knowledge. I wonder how much of the way we talk about classical music relies upon considering how our audience thinks about music, rather than how they hear it? It seems to me that there is, perhaps, something to be gained from reversing this priority of thinking and hearing, if only because of the way it may well give all of us a little therapeutic dose of discomfort within our comfort zones.