Ballade Blogging, Part 6: The Present Becomes Past

[posted March 14, 2012, at 10:33pm] ~ Series Archive

Here's a blog post I started back in November and never finished:
Sometimes I feel like this blog could be called "Varieties of Musical Experiences" - as much as anything else, I'm interested in writing about unexpected ways in which music and the mind intersect. One topic that's been on my mind recently is how a simple musical fragment can transport me back dozens of years. There's nothing earth-shattering about that; it's well-known that music can be a powerful memory connector. I just read this amazing story about a German musician with devastating amnesia who can remember almost nothing about anything - except when it comes to musical experiences.
Last night [remember, this was written in November], I gave my first ever pre-concert talk for an orchestra concert. Earlier that day, I was listening to the first Strauss horn concerto as part of my preparation. It's a work I don't know all that well, although I played it (via piano reduction) with a horn student years ago. (Not a very pleasant reduction, as I recall.) But I also played it about 25 years ago with the great Dale Clevenger on horn - this was back in my college cello-playing days, so in this case I was one of many accompanying Clevenger. While listening to the second movement, the soloist started on a melodic idea that I immediately realized sounded more familiar to me than the rest of the piece....[and that's as far as the post went until now]
Here's that Strauss melody:



As I heard it that day, my mind starting doing that pattern-matching thing a mind does, trying to remember why the tune sounded so much more familiar than the rest of the piece. And suddenly it came to me: the cello section was soon going to have a big soli moment playing that tune near the end of the movement. By the time the music got there, it felt completely familiar:



[Incidentally, it's striking how that little rhythmic figure with the triplet recalls a motif from the slow movement of Beethoven's 5th.]

Of course, cellos don't get the tune all that often, so it's kind of an event when it happens, but it makes me remember how much orchestral rep I "hear" through the cello section. It's likely that for me, at that concert, the big cello moment was the highlight of the concerto (sorry, Dale) - and I imagine I practiced that passage a lot! I hadn't thought of that cello moment for decades, but listening to that recording cued me that my solo was coming up just as if it were yesterday.

The first "real" orchestra concert I ever played featured Beethoven's 1st (still my sentimental favorite of "the 9"), and I can still feel the excitement of playing this little transitional theme. It's not the most important part of the piece, by any means, but for me, it kind of is:



I had another "celli flashback" last Fall when I first started rehearsing Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending with a violinist - it's a gorgeous piece, though not all that gratifying to play on the piano. But again, I felt a Proustian moment coming on just a few pages in when I realized my left hand was about to play "THE MOST IMPORTANT LITTLE MOTIF IN THE PIECE." Or so it seemed. This story goes back to a high school "Governor's School" program I attended. (The governor was Bill Clinton, no less!) The program was intended to jolt us innocent youngsters into the modern world, so the orchestra played only 20th century rep. Some Schoenberg Variations, something by Webern, Ives' "America" Variations, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, etc. I even got to play a few Cage sonatas for prepared piano, and I can still remember the conductor playing an LP of the Quartet for the End of Time for just a few of us.

But I was about as conservative as they come in those days and grumbled about a lot of this stuff, so I have to admit that the music I loved the most was...The Lark Ascending. Again, though the cello section mostly does cello section kinds of things in this piece (which, I suppose, is really about the solo violin part), there is this moment (6 seconds in, below) when the cellos leap up to sing a melodic fragment, and I can almost feel myself sitting on that rehearsal stage playing those notes, being so grateful for a nice singable tune.



When the camp ended, I went out and bought a record of The Lark as soon as I could, and I'm pretty sure that's one of the first things I listened for.

So, as I was saying in yesterday's post, there are plenty of different perspectives from which to view/hear a piece - hearing all these works from the cello section perspective is certainly skewed, but it skews happily towards a sense of place and purpose. (I'm sure there's a good joke about a cymbal player who hears someone mention a piece and says, "Oh yeah, that's the one that goes [CRASH!!!]." *)

Not surprisingly, I've had a lot of these experiences in revisiting the Chopin F Minor ballade this week. There are, somewhat vexingly, plenty of spots that I seem to have re-learn from scratch, but there are also passages in which, on first reading, I could feel exactly what my fingers felt like twenty-plus years ago. I don't just mean that the fingers automatically fell into place, but that the sensual connection with the keys made it seem as if the past had become present. It might seem that this opportunity to connect with the past is what inspired me to re-learn something I'd already played before, but these time-travelling moments always take me completely by surprise, which is what makes them so genuine.

In unhappier news, I'm also "remembering" what a difficult piece this is - if I ever end up slamming my fists into the keys in the days ahead, I wonder if it will awaken another connection with my youth....

* That could just as easily be a viola joke, couldn't it?