Ballade Blogging, Part 3: The "Cool" Frame

[posted March 11, 2012, at 11:21pm] ~ Series Archive

Yesterday's post was quite long, so although I do intend to post every day about my experience re-learning Chopin's Ballade No.4, today's post is just a little intermezzo. In fact, I'm still not going to get into much detail about the ballade itself, nor is this series intended to be anything like an analysis or blow-by-blow description of the music and my attempts to play it. If things go as intended, these blog posts will be more about broader topics inspired by my encounters with the Chopin.

But, a quick-up follow-up from yesterday's post in which I suggested that a common part of the "classical music" experience is encountering "a nice, cool surface under and through which powerful emotions can be contained and released." There are lots of ways to think about what that "surface" might be. I certainly don't mean that the music always "sounds" cool on the surface (though sometimes that's the case), but even the hottest music comes to us in a channeled and carefully framed way.

That probably didn't make much sense, so here's an example. A couple of days ago, I turned on the radio and heard the final pages of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata searing their way through the perfectly modulated climate of my comfortable, leather-interiorated car. When the last few desperate arpeggios had been spent, a calm, almost clinical voice came on to give the particulars of opus number, key, obligatory clarification that Beethoven didn't come up with the "Moonlight" name, and something about a passionate love that might have inspired the music. This passionate love could not have been described more dispassionately - passion here was another detail like an opus number. Although I certainly don't always have this reaction listening to classical radio, on this occasion, the juxtaposition struck me as truly absurd: we had just heard white-hot passion coming straight to us (well, sort of) from Beethoven's revolutionary 19th century heart, and it was immediately followed by a smooth and detached voice that could hardly have been more subdued.

It is very easy (as I have just shown!) to make fun of this kind of context, and there are lots of good reasons to re-think the presentation values of classical radio and the concert hall. But, it's also not easy to say what should come in its place. Do we really want a wild Wolfman Jack of a DJ coming on in tears, openly distraught by Op. 27, No. 2? As it happens, we have a classical morning drive-time "personality" here in the Boston area, and frankly, listening to her bubbly enthusiasms sometimes makes me wonder if I'll start having the kinds of seizures Kramer once experienced at the sound of Mary Hart's voice. It's not easy to match up to the intensity of Beethoven, and do we really want that anyway? Doesn't the cool surface do us a nice service?

This is supposed to be a short post, so I'll close by showing a couple of videos featuring two of our greatest living advocates for classical music, Alex Ross and Jeremy Denk. True, each is known more as writer than speaker, but I think we can safely stipulate that they both "get music" in the deepest way possible. And yet, here they are, talking about deeply passionate music in modulated, understated tones, coolly walking us around the stuff that fires them. I don't mean this critically - I find myself doing the same thing all the time. (You can hear me getting "wild about Brahms" here.)

[Come to think of it, that Bell/Denk video has a little bit of a "Christopher Guest" thing going on. (Compare with below.) Oh how we need a classical music version of "A Mighty Wind."]

So, I'm still not sure what all I'll be saying about the F Minor ballade this week, but don't be surprised if I end up framing Chopin's astounding "achievement in marrying elegant sophistication of form with unbridled freedom of expression" with words like "astounding achievement in marrying elegant sophistication of form with unbridled freedom of expression." We hold up the white-hot with cool gloves. It's what we do.