About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mozart in fiction, part 2

After finishing Mozart's Last Aria, I moved backwards in time and read Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell. This novel takes place beginning when Mozart was 21 years old in 1777 until he married Constanze in 1782. The Weber family and especially the four Weber daughters are the core of the story. However, the novel begins in 1842 when an Englishman, Vincent Novello, comes to visit the youngest Weber girl, Sophie, in hopes of learning more about Wolfgang Mozart. Sophie is by this time an old woman. This is similar in structure to Mozart's Last Aria, wherein Mozart's son comes to see his Aunt Nannerl and is given her journal to read. Sophie both talks with Novello and gives him some letters to read. This helps explain how we can see the story from viewpoints of each of the Weber daughters and sometimes Wolfgang. Short conversations between Sophia and Novello set off the sections of the book.

This is a lively story that includes quite a bit of historical fact. Mozart did woo Aloysia Weber, who became a well-known opera singer. She jilted him and he eventually married the next youngest, Constanze. The oldest sister, Josefa, was also a successful opera singer. Mozart wrote the Queen of the Night part in The Magic Flute for her.

Besides the Weber family, including father Fridolin and mother Maria Caecilia, Mozart's friend Joseph Leutgeb is included as an important secondary character. Leutgeb was an outstanding horn player for whom Mozart wrote his four horn concertos. Wolfgang's parents and sister are also characters in the story, both in person and through letters (They were a great letter-writing family.) Other real-life characters include Padre Martini, who Mozart had met in Italy as a boy; Joseph Haydn, and Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo, who employed both Wolfgang and Leopold Mozart in Salzburg and with whom Wolfgang had repeated run-ins.

All of the settings -- Vienna, Salzburg, Mannheim -- felt authentic. The musical evenings at the Webers also rang very true. It is known that the Mozart family hosted friends for evenings of music making; probably this was common at the time among both professional and amateur musicians. (Those evenings sound like so much fun that I wish we could revive the idea.) Some parts of the plot did not feel true to me, though I won't disclose them and spoil the story. The author has created clear personalities for each of the characters; some, like Maria Caecilia Weber and the horn player Leutgeb, I felt were probably close to what they had been like in life, based on what I already knew about them. Others I believe are more the authors' creation. In both novels -- Marrying Mozart and Mozart's Last Aria -- Wolfgang Mozart comes across as a serious, thoughtful young man. As I read the book I wished that the author had either identified the pieces she referred to more clearly or included a list of all the pieces with K√∂chel numbers.

I was not familiar with Stephanie Cowell before coming across this novel, but I learned from her website that she has written a number of historical novels. She was an opera singer for a time and did considerable research on Mozart. She has written quite a few post for Wonders and Marvels, including this one, on Mozart, Salieri, and the movie Amadeus. Marrying Mozart has recently been adapted into an opera and performed in New York.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Mozart in fiction, part 1

Back in January I wrote a post about the Mozart family. Part of the post was about the novels (and one movie) that the various Mozarts inspired, including several titled Mozart's Sister. Wolfgang Mozart and his family seem to attract novelists, more than any other classical musician. Following that post, I decided to look for and read these Mozart novels. In writing about them here I won't be revealing any spoilers. I want to look at how the characters, especially the Mozart family members, are portrayed; who the other historical characters are and their relationship to Wolfgang, and how much of the novel is historical fact.

The first novel that I read was Mozart's Last Aria by Matt Rees. Rees is known as a crime novelist and has used his expertise to write a suspenseful story. The novel takes place after Wolfgang's death and he appears only in his music and others' recollections. His sister Nannerl is the main character. The story is presented as a flashback, with Mozart's younger son Franz Xaver, also known as Wolfgang Amadeus the son, visiting his aged aunt Nannerl. She gives him a mysterious book, which turns out to be a diary of a few weeks in her life right after Wolfgang died. The rest of the novel is the story Nannerl tells of those weeks, with a final scene back in her home with Franz Xaver.

At the time of his death, Wolfgang and Nannerl had been estranged for a number of years. Wolfgang had left Salzburg and his family to live and work in Vienna, where he married Constanze. Nannerl had stayed to care for their father Leopold and eventually married an older man and moved to St. Gilgen, a small, remote town. Their break had to do with the reception Leopold and Nannerl gave Wolfgang's wife and the fact that Leopold left everything to Nanerl in his will. All of this is fact.

In Mozart's Last Aria, Nannerl receives a letter from Constanze informing her of Wolfgang's death and also that he thought he was poisoned. Telling her husband that she needs to pay her last respects to her brother, Nannerl travels to Vienna to try to determine what really happened.

A number of historical people figure into the plot. Wolfgang's widow Constanze Weber Mozart is naturally an important character. Baron van Swieten, who was one of Wolfgang's strongest supporters, plays an integral role. Since The Magic Flute was one of Mozart's last works, the people associated with that production appear regularly. These include the impresario Emanuel Schikaneder who wrote the libretto for The Magic Flute, and the actor and writer Karl Gieseke. Gieseke (or Giesecke) was a cast member in the premiere of The Magic Flute. He also translated several of Mozart's operas into German from Italian. He later left music and Austria to become a minerologist in Greenland and then a professor in Ireland. Other musicians in the story include Anton Stadler, for whom Mozart wrote his clarinet concerto and clarinet quintet, and Maria Theresia von Paradies, a blind concert pianist and singer.

Matt Rees gives background in his Author's Note about which events are historically true and what he changed for the plot. (He also includes a listing of the pieces that are referred to in the novel.) One of these altered facts is that Nannerl never visited Vienna after her brother's death. In order not to reveal too much of the plot, I refer you to the novel and the Author's Note for the rest.

Another afterword discusses how Rees came to write this novel. The plot is structured on Mozart's Piano Sonata in A Minor, K. 310, which he wrote shortly after his mother died.  As I read the book, the beginning drew me into the story, showing Nannerl's quiet life in the country filled with disappointment and unfulfilled hopes. She learns of her brother's death from Constanze's disturbing note and sits down to play the first movement, which mirrors her unease. The second part of the novel, set in Vienna, became confusing for me as Nannerl learned more and more about her brother's life, work, and associates. Many mysterious events and conversations occurred and I felt is was quite dark. For Rees, this is the Andante Cantabile second movement; this movement begins and ends calmly but has a darker, tumultuous section in the middle. When I reached the final part of the novel, the disparate threads began to come together and make sense as many of Nannerl's questions were answered. The third movement of the piano sonata is a Presto that comes to a rousing and satisfying conclusion while staying in the minor key.

I enjoyed this book. I recommend it especially if you like mysteries, classical music and Mozart, historical fiction, and Vienna.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Beyond Applause: the Controversy Continues

Applause and audience expression through cheering, laughing and shouting is a hot topic. The latest that I saw was an article in the New York Times, "A Loud Call for Cheering at Classical Concert Halls" which reports on an article in the Huffington Post by the chief executive and managing director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Richard Dare, titled "The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained." The title made me wonder why he is managing a symphony orchestra, but reading the article it is clear that he does love music.

There are two sides to the applause issue, the audience perspective and the performers' view. Mr. Dare writes from the audience perspective, particularly the new audience member. He argues that the experience of going to a live concert is difficult to figure out. I know from talking with friends who attended their first classical concert that this can be true. One friend asked me how I knew who was conducting and what they were playing -- she didn't know how to find the actual program in her program book which included articles, ads, and lists of donors. I've had strangers ask me where in the program we are. On the other hand, as a person who rarely goes to professional sporting events, I always find that experience baffling -- how do you find your section? where are the bathrooms? why can't you bring an umbrella in if it's raining? No one seems to consider these to be "obtuse and unfriendly" barriers to attending games. There is a learning curve in any new experience.

Mr. Dare also discusses how concerts were different in the past, that audiences did clap between movements and shout. According to primary sources, this is all true. At some concerts audiences demanded an encore of a movement in the middle of a piece. Sometimes audiences shouted requests for other pieces by the same composer. For composers of Mozart's time, audiences may have talked through out the performance. If it's your royal patron, what can you do? For quite some time now, though, composers have written as if they expect audiences to listen to their multi-movements works as a complete entity. Mahler symphonies, for example, are a journey from the beginning of the first movement to the last notes of the final movement.

From the other side, performers and many audience members  want to be able to listen in silence without the distraction of noises from other people. Most of the many comments in response to  Mr. Dare's article made that point. This blog post, "The Truth Behind the Concert Hall,"  by a violinist, is a passionate defense of quiet during performances and also of the ways that music lovers express their feelings without making a lot of noise.

The whole issue comes down to declining and aging audiences for classical concerts. This is not a new issue and orchestras, opera companies, and other classical music groups have been trying different ideas to try to attract more and younger concert-goers. Free concerts, concerts with pre-concert talks, early concerts, shorter concerts, flash mobs.... there are a lot of ideas being tried. The feeling seems to be that attending and supporting classical music was an activity of the elite and now that group has diminished. However, other place don't have this problem. In Vienna there is a waiting list years long for subscription tickets to the Vienna Phil. When we attended Tannhauser at the opera there, someone near us was talking when the orchestra prologue began. At least seven people all said, "ssssst!" to silence the talker. They are passionate about music there. Why is it different in Vienna than in the U.S.? They are becoming more multi-cultural, just as the United States is. How is their tradition different that so many Viennese have continued to actively support the many musical groups in the city?

While I was reading the articles that led me to write some more about audience behavior, I kept finding more and more information and opinion. Richard Dare wrote a follow-up article, "The Danger of Writing about Music." Another blogger with opinions about classical music audiences can be found here in this post "How to get more people to listen to classical music". For some original ideas on how organizations could improve the concert experience read "Why the Symphony needs a Progress Bar." There is a lively conversation going on, showing that many people feel strongly about the continuation of classical music. Yes!!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Applause, Encore

 I wrote about applause previously, from the standpoint of how musicians react to applause. Earlier this week Mark Caro wrote an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune titled Claptrap: When to Clap or Not to Clap at Concerts. Two days later, the Trib published reader responses to Claptrap. Basically the problem with applause is that on the one hand audiences oftentimes don't know when it's appropriate or traditional to applaud at classical concerts and so some audience members clap between movements. On the other hand, conductors and performers are often creating a continuous emotional thread through an entire piece of music, which is interrupted by applause between movements. Complicating this is the need for new audience members to support classical music. This means drawing them into a rewarding concert experience and not making them feel like bumpkins for not knowing when to applaud. A further annoyance is the inevitable audience member who wants to be the first to applaud or shout bravo and frequently ruins the mood that the performers have created. This is especially true when the musical work ends very softly.

I don't have an answer, only a couple of thoughts. When I attended Fearless Performance Camp with Jeff Nelsen a few summers ago, he stressed the importance of connecting with your audience. In the Canadian Brass, he said, when people applaud between movements, the quintet members look at the audience, smile and nod in acknowledgement. The idea that Jeff repeated was that audience members want to thank you, and performers should graciously accept thanks and compliments. This doesn't answer the problem of the mood-disrupters. I do wonder if that kind of concert-goer is really getting the full impact of the music.

My other thought on applause concerns our up and coming audiences. I teach in an elementary school and sometimes we have assemblies with performances of various types. I have noticed recently that quite a few young students don't applaud. They have enjoyed the performance, but they just sit looking at the stage while people around them applaud. They continue to do this even after pep talks by me, their teacher. My theory is that kids have spent an awful lot more time watching things on screens than live, and so they act like a live performance is a screen. I made progress with my students this year and more of them are applauding now.

Has anyone come up with solutions to these dilemmas?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Other Mozarts

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Friday was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birthday. He's 256 now. In conjunction with his birthday two bloggers, one at Operavore and one at Thoughts on a Train, wrote about two members of the family, Wolfgang's sister, familiarly known as Nannerl, and his mother, Anna Maria Pertl Mozart, who are mostly in the background when we think about Wolfgang's life and work.

According to most sources on Mozart, Nannerl, his older sister, was possibly as talented as he. Certainly she was a gifted performer, touring all over Europe with her brother and father when the two were children. However, as they got older, Wolfgang continued to soar as a musical genius, while Nannerl fades from view. What happened? Fred Plotkin, author of the blog post Nannerl Mozart: Born Too Soon, quotes from the Grove Dictionary of Music that "from 1769 onwards she was no longer permitted to show her artistic talent on travels with her brother, as she had reached a marriageable age.” So Nannerl married and disappeared from view.

Now, however, there is a new movie, Mozart's Sister, and at least five novels about Nannerl, three of which are titled Mozart's Sister. All are fiction based on some facts. The most recent is Mozart's Last Aria, in which Nannerl tried to solve the mystery of Mozart's death after not having seen him for many years.

Maria Anna (Nannerl) Mozart
We know from the family letters that Nannerl did compose music, though none was performed under her name and all of it is now lost. Though close to her brother in childhood, once he married Constanze, the siblings became distant. Both Nannerl and Leopold, their father, disapproved of Constanze. Nannerl also married and had three children. Later in life she taught music in or near Salzburg, and became friendly with Constanze and Constanze's second husband.

The Mozart's mother, Anna Maria Pertl Mozart, is an even more shadowy person. She accompanied the family on the early tours, but stayed at home with Nannerl when Leopold decided to take only Wolfgang. She went with Wolfgang on a trip to Paris and became sick and died there. Now she, too, has a novel about her life. Dick Strawser's blog post, A Novel about Mozart's Mother, recommends the novel, Stitches in the Air by Liane Ellison Norman, and discusses the little that is known about Mozart's mother. Her father was a musician, and the family was quite poor, in part because her father died when she was four. She married Leopold Mozart and had seven children, only two of whom survived. There are a few clues in letters from Leopold and Wolfgang that she had some musical education and perhaps even composed music.
Anna Maria Pertl Mozart, mother of Wolfgang and Nannerl

There is another shadowy Mozart who I have become interested in recently. Franz Xaver Mozart was the youngest son of Wolfgang and Constanze and another musician. Only two of the children born to Constanze survived infancy. Karl Thomas was the elder of the two children. Both boys were talented musically and studied music. Karl eventually gave up music as a profession and went into government service in Milan. Franz Xaver played both violin and piano, like his father. He began writing music when he was quite young, like his father, and gave a recital of his compositions when he was 13 years old.  In addition to using his given name, he also went by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (sohn). Quite a few of his compositions survive, including a trio for flute and two horns, 6 Piccoli Pezzi, which my daughter performed while studying in Vienna last year. I was interested in the  unusual instrumentation and in learning a piece by the son of Mozart. So, with the help of friends I was able to get a copy of the music. We hope to perform it later this year. 

Franz Xaver Mozart
It must have been terribly difficult to work as a performer and composer in the shadow of his father. Franz Xaver is said to have been introverted and self-deprecating, the opposite of his famous father. Yet he made the choice to work in music, composing and playing piano and violin. There don't seem to be any novels about Franz Xaver yet, though he does appear in some of the novels about Nannerl.

Such an interesting family. We are endlessly fascinated with the genius -- popping up in the midst of generations of competent musicians. I recommend the two blog posts -- they are very interesting.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Schubertiade 2012!

It's time for the Schubertiade again! Pianoforte Chicago will present this year's celebration on Saturday, January 28 in the Fine Arts Building, 410 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. It starts at 3:00, with performances running simultaneously in three or four performance spaces, and concludes at 9:00 with a Schubert sing-along.

This year I will be playing horn quartets with three friends, Nancy Orbison, Melody Velleuer, and Jennifer Souder. The organizers of the Schuberitade allow transcriptions and arrangements of Schubert, and so we will be performing "Holy, Holy, Holy," originally a choral piece, arranged for horns by Nancy Orbison; Marche Militaire, a piano solo; and Five Quartets arranged by Verne Reynolds. This last piece came from a set of six quartets, for which we chose five. Unfortunately, the publisher didn't include any information about where these pieces came from. I had guessed that they were originally choral pieces, in part because they are in four parts with somewhat distinct ranges. In addition, Schubert wrote a lot of choral music. I contacted Peter Kurau, horn professor at the Eastman School of Music and a former student of Verne Reynolds, to see if he had any information. His guess is that these were string quartets, though he passed the query along to one of the librarians at Eastman's Sibley Library, where the Verne Reynolds archive is kept. We haven't heard anything back yet. However, in this arrangement the pieces sound like they were always meant for four horns.

We played this program last Saturday at Art Wauk in Waukegan, Illinois. This was a fairly casual performance for people on a gallery walk, though it was a pretty cold night for strolling from gallery to gallery. The string quartet that played right before us stayed to hear our performance, so Nancy asked them if they recognized the Reynolds arrangement as a string quartet. None of them did.

We'll be presenting our program at 3:30 in Curtis Hall, on the 10th floor of the Fine Arts Building. My friend, tenor Henry Pleas, will be singing quartets with Salon at 5:00 in Studio 801, and my clarinetist friend, Howard Green, will be playing an arrangement of the "Arpeggione" Sonata with pianist Bill Crowle at 7:00 in Curtis Hall. The arpeggione is a mostly extinct instrument sometimes described as a bowed guitar or something similar to a bass viola da gamba. The sonata has been arranged for modern instruments, such as cello and, of course, clarinet. There are many other interesting performances on the schedule as well, including a cello version of the "Arppeggione."

If you decide to attend the horn quartet performance, please say hello afterwards. And if you know anything about the mysterious horn quartets arranged by Verne Reynolds, be sure to let me know!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sherlock Holmes

I have been a Sherlock Holmes fan since I was a kid and I discovered the stories. I loved the logic that was always a surprise and always led to solving the case. I wondered about the mysterious Mr. Holmes.

I still like the stories, which I have read again and again. I enjoy the Basil Rathbone movies, and I especially liked the series on PBS with Jeremy Brett as Holmes. I thought Brett captured the Holmes that Conan Doyle had created, and the opening theme was Saint-Saens' evocative Danse Macabre.

Holmes has appeared in many novels written by authors other than Conan Doyle. I am a fan of the series of historical novels by Carole Nelson Douglas that star Irene Adler, the only woman to ever outwit Sherlock Holmes. Irene and her husband elude pursuers, who believe they have died in a train crash. Irene then goes on to investigate and solve mysteries, with her friend Nell Huxleigh acting as her Dr. Watson. I also like a new series for kids, Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, in which the boys of the Baker Street Irregulars take a leading role. I also like the TV series House, which based the title character on Holmes.

I did not rush out to see the new movie series starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes. It sounded like this Sherlock Holmes was a major deviation from the traditional versions, in particular being much more action-oriented. I still have not seen the first movie, but I was lured into seeing the second movie, A Game of Shadows, by a blog post on NPR's site titled Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure in Good Music. The author, Anastasia Tsioulcas, writes that classical music has a major and important role in the film, in particular the Schubert song "The Trout," and Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. And so I went to the movie with my son, already a fan, and my husband. As a movie, it started pretty slow, but turned into an entertaining action-packed tale. There are many references to the original Conan Doyle story. This Sherlock Holmes has very little in common with Arthur Conan Doyle's creation, however, Robert Downey, Jr. portrays an interesting character, more goofy and physical than the original. I was hoping for a bigger role for the music, but it is important to the plot and the score is very nice. 

Would I go to the next Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes movie? Maybe. In any case, long live Sherlock Holmes, in all his incarnations!