Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Musical Fiction

The lives of the great composer have always been used as raw materials for writers of fiction, be it novels, plays, or screenplays. Over the years, there have been fictionalized accounts of the lives of Chopin (A Song to Remember, Impromptu), Schumann (Song of Love), Liszt (Lisztomania, Song Without End), Grieg (Song of Norway), Mahler (Ken Russell’s Mahler, Bride of the Wind), and Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers), just to name a few. In 1979, Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus was a great hit on London and Broadway stages, and was subsequently made into an even more popular film.

Creators of a very few of the films mentioned above did try to approximate the personality as well as facts about the composer’s life. Others, like Ken Russell, completely disregarded any semblance of truth in his insulting treatments of the lives of Mahler, Liszt and Tchaikovsky. When it comes to Hollywood and classical music, conductor and composer André Previn wrote, “When Walt Disney decided to film a life of Beethoven, he felt that deafness was too downbeat and not really germane to the story, so for once, and in glorious Technicolor, Beethoven retained perfect hearing to the end. Classical music has generally been a closed book to the movie executive mind…”

Even serious writers of fiction have taken over the lives of the composers in their creative efforts. Other than Shaffer’s Amadeus, writers as great as Alexander Pushkin fictionalized the death of Mozart in his 1830 verse drama Mozart and Salieri, subsequently made into a one-act opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In Rose Tremain’s beautifully written novel Music and Silence, composer and lutenist John Dowland made a “cameo” appearance.
In 2011, writer Sarah Quigley wrote The Conductor, a fictionalized account of conductor Karl Eliasberg’s heroic efforts in organizing a performance of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony during the siege of Leningrad. The only fact that one can establish about the story is that Eliasberg was indeed a conductor, not a great one, but who did indeed conducted Shostakovich’s wartime symphony, which very much raised the morale of citizens of Leningrad during the siege.

Without taking away any credits or merits from Quigley’s novel, her book does remind me of Soviet journalist and writer Vasily Grossman’s 1959 magnum opus Life and Fate, an epic story of the lives of Soviet citizens during the German invasion in World War II, focusing especially on the battle of Stalingrad. I did find Quigley’s The Conductor well written, and I was especially moved by her poignant description of the sights and sounds of everyday life - the challenges to find food, any food, the heartbreak of people dying, and the cruelty and kindness people show one another in times of trial - of people in Leningrad during the siege:

There had been a scuffle outside the bakery: a woman pushed against the wall by a teenager, the bread snatched from her hand. When Nikolai himself emerged from the bakery, the woman was still sitting empty-handed on the muddy curb. No one had helped her; the rest of the queue had said nothing, done nothing, simply stared as if they had no connection to thief or victim. The crime, the indifference – neither was out of the ordinary. By now everyone had learnt that survival meant looking after yourself.

At best, fictional works based on the events surrounding the lives of the great composers can do much to make aware and popularize great music. There is of course the danger that writers and filmmakers would distort the personality of these great musical figures and reduce their lives to the level of a soap opera. As much as Amadeus raised awareness of the music in the minds of non-music lovers, I am certain that many would remember Mozart as a buffoon who just happened to have been a genius, a charge that can easily be disproven by reading the composer’s many letters.

Every piece of musical fiction, like any creative work, must really be judged on its own merit. Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor is, for me, a serious and moving work of fiction that is worthy of our attention, and a stirring tale of human tragedy and heroism.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Life and Work of a Romantic Composer

With so much of the serious biographical material on Robert Schumann available only in German, a noteworthy book on the composer in English is always most welcomed. In 1985, psychiatrist and musician Peter Ostwald wrote Schumann – The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius, excellent psychobiography of the composer. Dr. Ostwald applied the same clinical analytical methods to his book Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius, an effort which I thought was less successful.

Hot off the press is German musicologist Martin Geck’s Robert Schumann – The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer, translated by Stewart Spencer (University of Chicago Press, 2013). Professor Geck set out, I think, to write not so much a purely chronological account of Schumann’s life, but more a discussion of the life and art of the composer within the context of the artistic and political milieu of his time. For me, what is even more intriguing is the fact that interspersed between chapters of his book are nine Intermezzi, essays that deal with various aspects of Schumann’s art.

With any biography of a well known figure, musical or otherwise, the acid test lies in whether one can learn something new about that historical figure. Other than facts of Schumann’s life, which are well known to music lovers, I do find the author’s discussions on the composers work and art most insightful.

Although friendly with his famous contemporaries Liszt and Wagner, he was not really close to them as friends or as artists. However, Schumann shared with Liszt and Wagner the belief in the idea of “the total artwork”, and searched for ways “of ensuring that the grand idea of a universal art might acquire a physical, tangible form.” Although it is well known that Schumann was regarded as a composer as well as a music critic, the author reminded me that Schumann viewed his music criticism and his writings on music not as reviews “in the traditional sense but as a form of poetic discourse”, not as criticism but as discussions of art and music.

One also finds within the chapters and in the Intermezzi quite detailed analysis of specific works of Schumann. I find the author’s discussion on the composer’s Kreisleriana, Op. 16, particularly interesting, even exciting. Geck points out that in Schumann’s pianistic masterpiece, the composer was writing

with Kreisler looking over his shoulder, and it is Kreisler who gives him the courage to indulge a fantastical imagination unsupported by any program and to create a cycle that explores what Franz von Schober had called “life’s untamed circle” with a tremendous wealth of ideas but without the sort of safety harness that Bach and Beethoven had at their disposal in the form of an initial theme on which their respective sets of variations are based. It is now Kreisler / Schumann who provides the theme.

Geck also highlights for me two major works of Schumann’s that have been all but ignored by contemporary musicians – his opera Genoveva and the oratorio Paradise and the Peri, as well as some of the composer’s choral works. He goes on to discuss and analyse Schumann’s universally popular Träumerei and argues that the work refutes Hans Pfitzner’s dictum that “Great works of art spring from the unconscious, not from the conscious.” In Träumerei, Schumann “was deliberately flying in the face of the ideal of natural beauty” by having an extremely carefully calculated and constructed work sounding like it was the composer’s “feeling” that “painted” the scene, or the dream.

The composer’s marriage to pianist Clara Wieck, the subject of much misinformation since Schumann’s death, is also handled well by Geck. It is neither the haliographic account of an “ideal marriage between two artists” nor the feminist viewpoint of Clara’s genius becoming completely suppressed by the forces of social convention. The author discusses the role Clara played in the marriage, as well as the challenges faced by women composers in the 19th century.

Martin Geck’s book on Schumann is not an easy read, but is an intelligent, insightful, and ultimately interesting addition to the literature on the great 19th composer. The author did not set out to write a biographical study as exhaustive as Ernest Newman’s biography on Wagner, or Henry Louis de la Grange’s massive study on Mahler, but he does provide interested readers much new insight on Schumann’s life and the art, as well as the times in which he lived.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Chamber Music Evening

The Han-Setzer-Finckel Trio was in town yesterday as part of the Friends of Chamber Music series of concerts. The trio, comprising pianist Wu Han, violinist Philip Setzer and cellist David Finckel, essayed Felix Mendelssohn’s towering masterpiece, the Trio No. 1 in D minor, and Antonin Dvořak’s Trio in F minor, Op. 65. Mr. Finckel and Ms. Han opened the concert with Richard Strauss’ rarely performed Cello Sonata in F Major, Op. 6. Setzer and Finckel are no strangers to Vancouver audience, as they regularly appear as members of the Emerson String Quartet.

Richard Strauss’ Cello Sonata is a charming work, written when the composer was seventeen. The idiomatic piano writing is similar to that of the composer’s youthful, but unfortunately also rarely played, Piano Sonata, Op. 5. In the third movement, there was a particularly charming exchange between piano and cello. At this point in his compositional career, Strauss’ style is still firmly rooted in the early 19th century, with the result that the music sounded almost like Schumann.

There are pieces of music whose “message” will come across regardless of the performance; there is also music that calls for a greater effort in the part of the performers to bring alive. The Strauss Sonata belongs, I think, to the latter category. To my ears, the performance needed greater projection. The ensemble between pianist and cellist was flawless, but I guess I was wishing for a bit more “soloistic” playing from the individual player, a bit more abandon.

In spite of his genius, many of Mendelssohn’s music sound, to me, effective rather than moving. There are of course notable exceptions – the E minor Violin Concerto, the Scottish Symphony, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the work performed last night. In these works, one feels that the composer was divinely inspired. Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor is one of the crown jewels of the chamber music repertoire. As individual musicians and as an ensemble, the trio certainly met the musical as well as (considerable) technical challenges the work calls for. Mendelssohn was himself a virtuoso pianist, and the piano part in this trio is as demanding as the composer’s piano concerti as well as the Variations Serieuses, Op. 54. Pianist Wu Han played her part as if these difficulties do not exist. My only minor quibble would be a slight heaviness in the piano playing in the second movement, there was a sense that the pianist was marking the beat rather than projecting the line of the music.

In the second half of the programme, the trio performed Dvořak’s very Brahmsian F minor Trio, Op. 65. The influence of Brahms is most apparent in the first and fourth movements, with the result that, especially in the first movement, the music sounded like the composer was too much in the shadow of his mentor. I thought that Dvořak’s own compositional genius did not really come through until the second movement, with the third movement sounding particularly inspired. The performance by the trio was spectacular. I was especially moved by the exquisite violin playing of Philip Setzer in the gorgeous Adagio movement, where the composer favoured the violinist with an unbelievably beautiful melody.

With such distinguished musicians performing, it was a little disappointing to see a half-filled hall last night. A friend, a long-time subscriber to the series, told me that there used to be waiting list for subscription to these concerts. The sparse attendance to this wonderful performance serves once again as a reminder of what role the arts play in our society today. I do hope and pray that the Friends of Chamber Music, now in its 65th season, will be able to continue to bring to our stages world class chamber ensembles performing music from this, the purest form (and most democratic) form of music making.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Magnificent Cinematic Experience

Taiwanese cinema has come a long way since its very humble beginnings. From films made under Japanese colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century, to movies made under the auspices of the Nationalist government since 1949; from barely watchable, low budget kung-fu films in the 1960’s and 1970’s to diabetes-inducing romantic melodrama, Taiwanese cinema came of age during the so-called New Wave period, beginning in 1982, and it has brought to audiences some of the most innovative contributions to the genre of film.

Director Edward Yang (1947 - 2007) has done for the family drama in the late 20th century what master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu had done in the first half of that same century. In fact, Yang acknowledged his debt to Ozu by naming one of his first films Taipei Story, as homage to Ozu’s Tokyo Story, widely considered by film connoisseurs to be one of the greatest films ever made.

I am one of those people who can watch the same movie many times. Like listening to a great piece of music, I never cease to discover previously unnoticed nuances when I re-watch a worthwhile film. One film by Yang, one of his most magical and moving films, that I have returned to time and again, is Yi Yi (2000), loosely translated as A One and a Two – a more literal translation would be One and One.

Running an epic 178 minutes, Yi Yi tells the story of an upper-middle class family in Taipei. Each member of the family: NJ, an executive in a software company, Min-Min, his wife and their two children, teenage Ting-Ting and Yang-Yang, their young son.

The movie begins with the wedding of Min-Min’s ne’er-do-well younger brother and his very pregnant fiancé. When the family returns home after the banquet, they discover that Min-Min’s mother has suffered a stroke and is now in a coma. One of the most interesting aspects of this movie is that this elderly figure, who remains unconscious throughout the film, serves as a silent confessor, someone everyone in the film would go to with their problems, their thoughts, their worries, as well as a channel for them to express their suppressed emotions.

Throughout the film, every member of the family searches for the meaning in their respective lives – NJ’s company is going through a crisis, and his brother-in-law owes him money, then Min-Min, as a result of her mother’s illness, goes through a spiritual crisis and finds a complete lack of meaning in her own life, and Ting Ting experiences the first brush of romance; even little Yang Yang, forever bullied by the older girls at school, becomes suddenly aware of the opposite sex. The movie examines both the interior lives of each character, as well as the interaction of each character with the people around them.

For me, the star of the film is Yang Yang, played with a perfect combination of innocence and wisdom by Jonathan Chang. With the aid of a camera, Yang Yang goes around taking pictures of people’s back, because people never can really see their own backs, says he. Eventually, little Yang Yang is the one that manages to say what all the adults in the film fail to convey.

Yi Yi deals with the crisis of spiritual emptiness and clashes of values in the modern man, and the forces that threaten to break down the family, all against the backdrop – the sights and sounds - of a metropolis. Like Ozu, and unlike many of today’s commercial directors trying to get a film to clock in under 120 minutes, Yang takes time to tell a story, and allows for the characters and the action to fill in each frame – and what beautiful frames they are! We see many of the scenes in the film through an open window, or through the reflection of a window pane in the night, almost as if we are eavesdropping upon an intimate conversation. In one scene, we hear the fight between a next door neighbour and her lover, but we “see” this conversation from the outside of the darkened apartment window. At the end of the movie, the audience witnesses a supernatural occurrence that leaves it wondering – did it really happen, or was it merely a dream?

Because of his short life, Edward Yang’s output is relatively small, but every one of his films deserves to be explored. Like any great film, we see in Yi Yi a little bit of ourselves, the questions we ask of our lives, and a reminder of how easy it is to lose sight of one’s integrity