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I learned about the book from this NY Time article. I pretty much skipped through all but the first chapter, since it’s mostly way too detailed musicology, but it’s really fun knowing about the tremendous changes in piano performance since 1800’s. The author must have done a huge amount of research into concert programs, reviews, personal correspondence, besides standard musicology materials. Very respectable.

The NYT article touches on many aspects of the changes. In a word, a 19th-century “classical music” (it was contemporary back then) concert was as much entertainment as a 21th-century rock concert. It’s not too long, noisy (“Concertgoers, Please Clap, Talk or Shout at Any Time” as the title of the NYT article), mostly variety (all kinds of instruments and pieces), improvisational (with prelude, cadenza, and all sorts of things), and sometimes with only selected movements of a “long” and “severe” piece such as a Beethoven sonata. And wrong note? What wrong note? From the NYT article:

My favorite music criticism is from a German on Brahms’s playing his own B flat Piano Concerto. “Brahms did not play the right notes,” he wrote, “but he played like a man who knew what the right notes were.”

I think the ultimate goal of music, or art in general, is to connect with and move audience. So it really doesn’t matter how it is presented. I don’t mind the modern concert ritual (described as “funeral procession” by Hamilton) since I’m used to it, but the book certainly opens up my views and confirms some of my secret doubts, such as whether all the movements in a piece are really inherently cohesive, and if classical music popularizers like Lang Lang should be lauded. I wouldn’t necessarily call those people who condemn Lang Lang snobs, but I’ve always thought there’s nothing wrong in popularizing classical music. Hey, Super Girls can be popular, why can’t Chopin and Rachmaninoff?

Back to the book, one of the more interesting thing is the custom of playing prelude. I never thought preludes were meant to be, er, preludes: short pieces leading up to the main program. The book gave several reasons for the then-ubiquitous and now-unimaginable practice:

  • It sets up the right mood for the main piece. So it’s usually in a related (if not the same) key with related melody and rhythm. It may even introduce some themes in the main piece so audience can be more familiar with them.
  • It quiets down the audience, let people know that performance has begun so they can take their seats and stop socializing.
  • The most fun (and important) of all, it tests the piano’s quality and timbre so the pianist can adjust the playing accordingly. That was the age before modern piano mechanism and production, so every piano can be quite different and powerful pianists (Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, et al) are known to break pianos during performances.

(UPDATE 6/30)

I forgot to mention that Hamilton attributes the dramatic changes in piano performances mostly to recordings. I think while that’s a major influence, it’s not the only one, or the most important one.

To me, it’s the collective conscious and unconscious “ivory towering” by the professionals (composers, performers, critics, publishers, etc.) and audience that make classical music performance serious and somber to the brink of hypocrisy. The professionals want to distance and elevate themselves above pop music–jazz at first, then rock, so that they can carry on the great and noble “dead white male” traditions. Improvisation? Leave it to blind black piano player at the street corner. Crowd pleaser? Those long hair druggies with twisting hips will do. We are the safeguard of the sacred and pure classics for future generations!

And the audience take that all in smugly as a ritual, to the extent that it feels like kitsch. I’m not saying it’s kitsch for classical music to invoke sacred and pure feelings, but it’s definitely kitsch if you get the “second tear” listening to, say, Swan Lake (I don’t mean to pick on Tchaikovsky, but some of his stuff sounds just a little bit too teary).

Jazz can be sacred and pure. So does rock. Any music is transcendental by definition: it abstracts and transcends the everyday experience of sound. Anybody can, and should be moved by any kind of music. It doesn’t matter where, or how.

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