Wisst ihr wie das wird?(1): The Album-Sonate for Mathilde Wesendonck as Prototype for Richard Wagner’s Unrealized Symphonies
“Don’t look for too many unmentionable motivations in the Album Sonata. I promised it to a young woman who was very kind to me, in return for a beautiful sofa cushion that she gave me as a present.”
So wrote Richard Wagner, nearly twenty-five years after he composed the work in question (2). The little mention which the composer made to this sonata is exclusively dedicated to downplaying its significance; Wagner knew he would be remembered as a composer of dramatic works, not of ‘absolute’ instrumental ones. Aside from Wagner’s relationship with the work’s dedicatee, does this sonata, all but ignored in Wagner studies, offer any insight into a composer for whom so much insight has already been offered up?
Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark is a work from the fruitful period that followed his self-imposed exile from professional music-making. During the years 1898- 1906, Ives more and more removed himself from the German-Romantic harmonies which had dominated his earlier works, instead concentrating on the development of his own personal idiom derived from experimental technical procedures and an emphasis on quotation. The work, whose first title was “A contemplation of nothing serious,” serves as a companion piece to “‘A Contemplation of a Serious Matter’,” or The Unanswered Question.” In the work, we find Ives as a young man in a light-hearted contemplative mood, observing the goings-on of the Park while sitting on a bench by one of its ponds. This sort of immersed, nature-inspired reflection was just one of the ways in which Ives’ transcendentalism-- the set of ideas, attitudes, and questions espoused by thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau-- reared its head. By first examining significant elements within the score, and then by examining some those aspects of Transcendentalism which most immediately relate to music generally, this paper intends to broadly convey Ives’ musical translation of philosophical ideas. Foremost among these ideas are those concerning the importance of a communal, emotional language which can be accessed through quotation of popular materials; that the contemplation of Nature is essential to the well-rounded and dynamic life; and that harmony exists between elements which appear to be opposed to or at odds with one another.
On April 24, 1839, a 21-year-old Henry David Thoreau remarked in his journal:
Why should we concern ourselves with what has happened to us, and the unaccountable fickleness of events, and not rather with how we have happened to the universe, and it has demeaned itself in consequence? Let us record in each case the judgment we have awarded the circumstances.
The breadth of application for this sort of remark toward a more positive interpretation of existence is wide, but as a musician, I can't help but read it as a comment on performance anxiety. The more we can become casual observers of experience (rather than forcing experience upon casual observers), the less affected we become before, during, and after performance. I think this mindset stands in contrast to the one commonly experienced by performers, in which the most severe of critics occupies our headspace for the supermajority of our time, not letting a single mistake go by in practice. Attempting to replace this firmly-entrenched mindset when it comes to performance time can be a real challenge, and failed attempts have resulted in botched concerts and lowered self-esteem worldwide. Thoreau advocates instead for a probing existence at all times, free of self-judgment, one in which we value ourselves more than the circumstances we find ourselves in. Practicing, then, is the joyous solving of problems and gathering of positive experience, and performance the joyous, selfless experiencing of those solved problems.
And although you've heard it before: Think as though you are, and you will become
As a supplement, here is Muhammad Ali:
(This was written in Spring, 2011)
I just got back in to New York late last night after Juilliard’s spring break. My time, spent in California, was refreshing and I feel like I have enough in me now to make it through the next two months until graduation....
I mostly took it easy in terms of performing (though I did confuse my “century”s and “100”s at this performance at the American Guitar Society (see above), but I did dedicate some time to setting up concerts for next year, when I’ll be back in L.A. A bass-baritone friend of mine was in town, visiting and auditioning for the young artist’s program at L.A. Opera. Being friends with a singer, and non-guitarists generally, has allowed me many new perspectives on the guitar world.
I’m happy with increased standards of technique which the guitar has gone through in the past few decades. Our pedagogy has been put through a virtual time warp, putting guitarists on par with those other instrumentalists whose traditions run much deeper. But I’m unhappy about what’s been lost in this “Technical Revolution.” In fact, I think that the whole process is rather like a pendulum: a generation of guitarists will be known for sometimes excessive forms of musicality: too much rubato, or an affected style. The next generation, in response, will reject what came before and adopt a much more precision-based attitude to the instrument, with a sometimes bare-bones approach to interpretation. The problem is that plenty of guitarists can be awarded several degrees and win many, many competitions without ever listening to anything besides these precision-based players. This kind of immersion leads to an emulation of those guitarists, which creates, in part, the culture of precision-based playing which exists now.
That’s part of the reason why I came out to New York: to get away from that “guitarists-playing-for-other-guitarists” culture. My first year here, I roomed with an oboist. The role the oboe plays in the orchestra is one in which precision is assumed. But within that, what distinguishes an oboist--what they aspire to-- is a high quality of sound and phrasing, of vibrato and expression. I guess the name of the game is to strive for a vocal quality in playing. We guitarists are lucky in that our instrument is capable of such quality-- of vibrato, of portamento, etc. Our instrument is not like the piano, where every pitch is both literally and figuratively black and white: there is no space in between the half steps in which there is so much possibility for expression.
So if it’s too much a strain to immerse yourself in some old Segovia, Barrios, or Llobet recordings because of their mannerisms or lack of precision, why not try out some Heifetz? or Casals? Then again, why not go straight to the source and emulate vocalists? Although I’m still relatively new to this approach, incorporating it has become the most exciting part of my practice and performance.