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Dmitri Shostakovich tells this story of Alexander Glazunov’s astounding musical memory. Glazunov was one of Shostakovich’s teachers in St. Petersburg, and by all accounts his ability to retain and recapitulate music was perfect. Here’s the practical joke played upon a visiting composer, Sergei Taneyev:
“Taneyev had come to Petersburg from Moscow to show his new symphony, and the host hid the young Glazunov in the next room. Taneyev played. When Taneyev finished and rose from the piano, he was surrounded by the guests, who congratulated him, naturally. After the obligatory compliments, the host suddenly said, ‘I’d like you to meet a talented young man. He’s also recently written a symphony.’
“They brought Glazunov from the next room. ‘Sasha, show you symphony to our dear guest,’ the host said. Glazunov sat down at the piano and repeated Taneyev’s symphony, from beginning to end. And he had just heard it for the first time — and through a closed door.”
[Source: Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New York: Harper and Row, 1979, p. 68.]
Posted 6 months, 2 weeks ago at 11:40 am. 1 comment
According to Shostakovich:
“Rimsky-Korsakov used to say that he refused to acknowledge any complaints from composers about their hard lot in life. He explained his position thus: Talk to a bookkeeper and he’ll start complaining about life and his work. Work has ruined him, it’s so dull and boring. You see, the bookkeeper had planned to be a writer but life made him a bookkeeper. Rimsky-Korsakov said that it was rather different with composers. None of them can say that he had planned to be a bookkeeper and that life forced him to become a composer.”
[Source: Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New York: Harper and Row, 1979, p. 65.]
Posted 6 months, 3 weeks ago at 9:26 am. 1 comment
A charming anecdote about his commitment to music, as reported by cellist Yulian Poplavsky, who knew Tchaikovsky at the time.
The event was a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Spanish Capriccio, which was to be conducted by the composer himself in a concert for the Russian Musical Society. The great Tchaikovsky was in attendance for the afternoon rehearsal before the evening performance.
Most of the musicians in the orchestra were German and very good, but in rehearsal, as Poplavsky tells it, “a heavy and sleepy German in the orchestra took up the castanets. He played them so lazily and out of rhythm that the lusty dances of Andalusia were utterly lost, and all of the color disappeared. Rimsky-Korsakov simply dropped his hands, and his face clouded over.
“In the evening, they began the concert. During the intermission, before the Spanish Capriccio, I saw Tchaikovsky backstage. In great agitation he was trying to convince Rimsky-Korsakov of something. I approached.
“‘Listen [said Tchaikovsky], that was nothing like castanets; it was Bismarck chewing nuts. He’ll ruin us! I’ll play myself.’
“Tchaikovsky took the music and the castanets and stood in the back of the orchestra, behind the timpani. The capriccio began. The heavy German was nowhere to be seen. When the musicians saw that Tchaikovsky himself would be playing the castanets, they were dumbfounded. They began. It is impossible to describe the performance. Germans are, after all, excellent musicians and they were so shocked by this that they tried as hard as they could.”
I love the image of Tchaikovsky’s playing castanets, and his being able to inspire a whole orchestra to great effort by doing so.
(One quibble with Poplavsky’s telling of the tale, as he ends it by saying of Tchaikovsky’s action, “Only a great artist can sacrifice his personality to art in such a manner.” I suppose Poplavsky means something like this: playing the castanets at the back of the orchestra should be seen as beneath the dignity of a great composer like Tchaikovsky, so his dignity was sacrificed to make the performance work. I think, by contrast, the castanets were not beneath anyone’s dignity but importantly critical to this performance, and that Tchaikovsky’s willingness to play them was not a sacrifice of his personality but an expression of his personality’s commitment to making musical excellence.)
Excerpts from Poplavsky’s memoir in Alexander Poznansky’s Tchaikovsky Through Others’ Eyes (Indiana University Press, 1999), pp. 236-7.
Could Tchaikovsky play Tchaikovsky?
Posted 1 year ago at 9:45 pm. 1 comment
How many major entrepreneurial movements were there in the twentieth century? The creation of the Hollywood movie industry early in the century, the Silicon Valley technology boom late in the century, and so on.
I’d add the great wave of rock and roll music in the middle of the century.
How many times did this story happen? Some kids start a garage band. They write their own songs. They scrape up some money and hit the road, marketing themselves any way they can, living on the edge, and working to hit the big time.
That’s the essence of entrepreneurship: Creative energy, initiative, risk, going for broke, persevering through the obstacles, striving for success.
I was struck by this Bob Dylan line about the impact Elvis Presley had on him: “When I first heard Elvis’s voice, I just knew I wasn’t going to work for anybody, and nobody was going to be my boss. He is the deity supreme of rock and roll religion as it exists in today’s form. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail. I thank God for Elvis Presley.”
I wasn’t going to work for anybody, and nobody was going to be my boss.
It can be rock and roll or anything. Entrepreneurship is finding your own voice and doing your thing your way.
The image is from Rusty Knuckles, which has this useful advice on How To Fail Miserably in a Band.
The Entrepreneurial Process — my 10-minute lecture.
Posted 1 year ago at 3:23 pm. 1 comment
Adam Curtis at the BBC blog gives us two identical video clips set to very different music.
Listen to some of each clip to see whether you experience what Curtis suggests.
About the first clip, Curtis says, “I think it gives a sense that we are all together in the dance.” I agree.
But the second clip is different. Curtis says, “The feeling it evokes is how separate we are — and how isolated we sometimes are from one another.” Yes.
Same video, yet very different experiences. How does the music do this?
Here’s how it works with me. In the first clip, the music’s beat and tone matches the dancers’. Both are upbeat, energetic, happy. The music makes me, the listener, feel upbeat, and I see the dancers being upbeat, and the integration of what I am seeing and hearing makes me feel connected and a part of the dancers’ experience.
But in the second clip, what the dancers are doing and feeling is disconnected from the music. The dancers are fast-moving and having fun while the music is melancholy, slow-paced, and often out-of-beat with dancers’ movements. The music makes me feel melancholy but I am seeing other people having fun, so the music and visuals are divergent, so I feel as though I am seeing the dancers from a distance, or through a telescoping or slightly distorting medium. Additionally, the mismatch of the visual and auditory beats reinforces the disconnection.
Analogy: While walking home from a funeral, feeling saddened and contemplative and with solemn music in your head, you pass by a playground with kids running around and shrieking joyously, lovers holding hands, a family having a picnic. You see fun, but you don’t feel fun, so you feel disconnect.
Overall music-video experience arises from the integration/dis-integration of compounded elements: (1) What I see in the video, (2) what I feel from the music, and (3) the relation of the video to the music.
But (1) and (2) are themselves compound:
* In the video I see rhythmic movement, and I see and interpret facial expressions and body language. The seeing and interpreting lead to an emotion.
* In the music I hear rhythm and expressive tone and that leads to an emotion.
The visual experience is the integration of several elements, as is the musical experience, and each leads to an emotional judgment — and the overall music-video experience depends on whether the juxtaposition of the visually-based package and the auditorily-based package integrates or mis-integrates. Their integration causes a feeling of connection; their mis-integration leads to a feeling of disconnection.
How is that as a start? Amazing that so much goes on experientially, and that it occurs so quickly and automatically.
Posted 1 year ago at 10:09 am. Add a comment
One more thing to thank the Enlightenment for.
I’m reading a biography of Rossini. Gioachino was born into a musical family in February 1792 (two months after the death of Mozart), but his family always struggled financially.
In the music world of the 1700s, the castrati had reached the height of their popularity due to the quality of their voices. “In the 1720s and 1730s, at the height of the craze for these voices, it has been estimated that upwards of 4,000 boys were castrated annually in the service of art. Many came from poor homes and were castrated by their parents in the hope that their child might be successful and lift them from poverty.”
In his later years Rossini described the castrati this way: “I have never forgotten them. The purity, the miraculous flexibility of those voices and, above all, their profoundly penetrating accent — all that moved and fascinated my more than I can tell.”
But it had been a close call for the boy Gioachino. Biographer Richard Osborne says that “his maternal uncle … had suggested that the boy be castrated on the ground that the majority of operatic castrati live in great opulence.”
What to do, what to do?
Enlightenment humanism had led to a significant decline in castrations for musical purposes, and the practice had been made illegal in part of northern Italy by the 1790s (though it was not illegal in all of Italy until the unification of 1870).
But, reported Rossini later, his mother put her foot down and “would not consent at any price.”
So Gioachino avoided the knife and instead of becoming a singer went on to write Semiramide, William Tell, The Barber of Seville, and other classics.
Good choice, Signora Rossini. Thank you.
 Castrato. Wikipedia.
 and  Richard Osborne, Rossini (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 13 and 14.
Posted 1 year, 2 months ago at 8:31 am. 1 comment
The great Callas, according to biographer Richard Levine:
“Maria’s impressive willpower and focus enabled her to develop into the artist we think of when we think of Callas, but at the time her fellow students were hardly charmed by her chilly single-mindedness. One of them later said that ‘her earnestness was oppressive.’ Maria knew, however, that is was necessary for her to focus her talent into a light that would outshine everyone else. It was Maria against the world, and she would not share the spotlight. Of course, the anger and alienation that she had long felt were elements of this drive, but as time went on she achieved the calm, regal demeanor for which she would become known. A close friend later revealed, ‘When I was near Maria, her appearance may have been of calm and silence, but if I sat near her quietly, without talking, I never felt calm or silence coming from her. Deep down the turmoil was hidden. On the surface everything was quiet; underneath I felt the volcano getting ready to explode at any minute.’”
I like this passage for its highlighting of traits that successful people embody — willpower, focus, single-mindedness, volcanic energy, and so on. But also for its contrasting the genius’s relation to others and the others’ relation to the genius.
Callas early in life ran into those who were uncaring about her talent, unable to recognize it, or obstructionist when they did recognize it. As a result, she developed a generalized attitude of anger and alienation against a world that resisted or opposed her development. But then, as she matured, she strove to rise above the anger, not letting it dictate her reactions, instead focusing her energy positively on becoming how she wanted to be.
Relationships have two sides, and the other side is how those in Callas’s social circle responded to her. Some shared her commitment and admired her talent, and they became friends and associates. But many others were less committed or resented her talent. And it’s striking how the same character trait of one person will generate opposed reactions from others. When a fellow student says, for example, that Callas’s earnestness was “oppressive,” does that tell us more about the student or about Callas?
Creative geniuses as selfish — Rachmaninoff version.
Creative geniuses as selfish — Richard Wagner version.
Source: Richard Levine, Maria Callas, A Musical Biography (New York: Black Dog and Leventhal, 2003), p. 19.
Posted 1 year, 7 months ago at 10:38 am. 1 comment
Wagner, in a letter to Franz Liszt:
“If I am obliged to plunge once more into the waves of an artist’s imagination in order to find satisfaction in an imaginary world, I must at least help out my imagination and find means of encouraging my imaginative faculties. So I cannot live like a dog, I cannot sleep on straw and drink common gin: mine is an intensely irritable, acute and hugely voracious, yet uncommonly tender and delicate sensuality which, one way or another, must be flattered if I am to accomplish the cruelly difficult task of creating in my mind a non-existent world.”
Wagner was a man of many mistresses, fine food and drink, and the beautiful comforts of life. And his point in the quotation is that to create at the highest level, the Wagnerian creator needs high-level stimulation in all areas of life.
Wagner’s lifestyle is in contrast to another musical great’s, Rachmaninoff, who in this quotation implied a more ascetic focus on creating and creating alone that submerged other elements of life.
So given the high quality and quantity output of both Wagner and Rachmaninoff, should we conclude different strokes for different creative folks? Some artists are sensual, and some are ascetic; some surround themselves with luxuries, and some live plainly; some have active social lives, and some are loners?
Source: Quoted in Michael Tanner’s Wagner (Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 24.
Related: Creative geniuses as selfish — Rachmaninoff version.
Posted 1 year, 8 months ago at 8:36 am. 4 comments