Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Alfred Brendel Lectures

On Friday, October 21st, I had the privilege of attending a lecture given by the distinguished pianist Alfred Brendel at the School of Music of the University of British Columbia. No stranger to concertgoers and music lovers, Alfred Brendel was of course one of the great pianists of the 20th century. What fewer people realize is that Brendel was and is a prolific writer of various musical topics as well as a poet. His two volumes of collected writings – Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts and Music Sounded Out, make for stimulating reading for musicians and serious music lovers. Since his retirement from concertizing several years ago, the pianist has been travelling giving lectures on music as well as poetry readings. Vancouver was fortunate to have been one of Mr. Brendel’s stops in his lecture tour.

The subject of Alfred Brendel’s lecture, Must Classical Music be Entirely Serious, drew materials from two essays on the same subject the pianist previously wrote – The Sublime in Reverse and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.

With a generous sampling of musical examples played by Mr. Brendel, he set out to show how composers, namely Haydn, in his piano compositions, injected their music with “a sort of innocent mischievousness,” to quote an early biographer of Haydn. In the case of Beethoven, Brendel quoted Friedrich Rochlitz, who wrote, “Once Beethoven is in the mood, rough, striking witticisms, odd notions, surprising and exciting juxtapositions and paradoxes occur to him in a steady flow.” The musical examples chosen by Brendel certainly served the purpose of proving the above points.

Mr. Brendel focused his lecture on three major works, Haydn’s C Major Sonata, Hob. XVI: 50, Beethoven’s G Major Sonata, Op. 31, No. 1, and the same composer’s monumental Diabelli Variations, a work usually treated by most performers with the utmost seriousness, revealing it to be a highly humorous work.

In the music of Joseph Haydn, Mr. Brendel discussed the composer’s “tricks” in his comic traits – breaches of convention, the appearance of ambiguity, proceedings that masquerades as something they are not, for instance, a deliberate show of ignorance of musical skill, veiled insults, and sheer nonsense. The great pianist also devoted much time in discussing humour in the works of Beethoven – the two hands that are unable to play together in the first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 31, No. 1 Sonata, making fun of a prima donna’s coloratura embellishments in the second movement of the same piece, the “abuse” of fugal writing technique for burlesque purposes, and the “laughing theme” in his the final movement of his Sonata in F Major, Op. 10, No. 2.

Alfred Brendel’s discussion on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations reminds us of the humour that can be found in abundance in this work. I think pianists and music lovers either treat this piece as highly serious, almost like a holy relic, or extremely boring. A pianist friend said that he often falls asleep during performances of the Diabelli, and when he wakes up, the music is still being played. Perhaps it is not so much that the work itself is boring, but performances of this work that fails to bring out the humour and the joy in the music. Mr. Brendel certainly proved his point in the examples that he played for us.

The name of Mozart was not mentioned in Mr. Brendel’s lecture. He thinks that Haydn and Beethoven were predominantly instrumental composers, where sensual beauty of sound was not an innate quality. Mozart, and Schubert, had imaginations that were primarily vocal and, to quote Mr. Brendel, “singing, like sensuality, is hardly funny.” It is also more difficult to discover humour in the Romantic composers, because by the 19th century, music became “an entirely serious business.” Composers and performances in the Romantic era took themselves very seriously, and were expected “to function as heroes, dictators, poets, seducers, magicians, or helpless vessels of inspiration.” Schumann’s monumental Humoresque, great music as it is, is “capricious, lyrical, and unpredictable,” but not funny in the sense he discussed above. Mr. Brendel said that he was completely unable to find any sense of humour in the music of Chopin.

The pianist’s sense of humour and obvious enjoyment in sharing his musical thoughts were not lost on the audience, who responded fully with much laughter. Mr. Brendel is a man with a wonderful sense of humour, who enjoys the Far Side cartoons of Gary Larson, and who once said that his favourite hobby is “laughing.”

I, for one, was, and am, grateful for Alfred Brendel for coming to Vancouver and sharing his insights, his humour, and his obvious joy in music with us.

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