Ludwig Van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 ‘Emperor’

After the most wonderful semester of my college career, in the summer of 1975, I returned to my home town of Mishawaka, Indiana. On weekends I would accompany my friends, Eric Tollar and Gary Endicott, over the border to Michigan where the legal drinking age was 18. Often we’d start out at Tollar’s house. Tollar’s dad was a taciturn engineer and I can’t remember him ever addressing more than a sentence or two in my direction.

Maybe he thought I was a bad influence on Eric. Eric had been the valedictorian the class ahead of mine in high school and he went to Purdue University to major in math. That was a good guy thing to study. Here I came bringing over most of the new records I had discovered the semester before at Indiana University, exposing his son to all that sissy music. Eric you see, coming from a more affluent family than mine, had a stereo that his parents had bought him for the exorbitant price (for 1975) of $900.

Eric’s room was in the attic, which his father had converted into a nice living space. We’d go up there before one of our drinking binges and listen to Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Montiverdi. His father sat in the living room below smoking camels, drinking Scotch and watching Lawrence Welk. What a terrible disappointment that must have been for him.

Eric’s dad had also bought him a used Ford Mustang fastback, which we used to take on our excursions to Michigan. It never got us any girls, however. The reason was that we spent all of our time in the bar trying to get as drunk as possible while discussing philosophy, literature and music. At that time, Eric was a sneering and atheistic cynic. Having a huge IQ also gave him the right, in his own mind, to make fun of most people of lesser intelligence. I enjoyed sitting and asking naïve questions or provoking him by gainsaying his opinions. It was almost like having a private tutor, in the old-fashioned sense, and I learned so much from him as well as honed my own wits in our outings.

One night we got tired of the bar where we started and moved to another one right on the state line, which had the reputation of being a good pick-up joint. By the time we got there it was around one in the morning and the place was nearly empty. We had a few beers and left. When we got into Eric’s car, we discovered he had left the lights on and the battery had gone dead. The parking lot was empty so we couldn’t get a jump. After wringing his hands for a while, Eric finally decided to call his dad. Goddamn if the old man didn’t hop in his car and drive on up.

We waited in silence for the next half hour until he arrived. Gary and I knew how our dads would have reacted if we had woken them up at such an ungodly hour to tell them we were out drinking and had left the lights on. We would have been dead meat, but we didn’t know how Tollar’s dad would react. Tollar was silent on the matter.

When Eric’s dad arrived he jumped out of his car and strode over to his son’s car, barely acknowledging us. He tried starting the car. Then he popped the hood and poked around for a while. “It’s not the battery. Starter’s bad. Let’s go.” We hopped into his car and he sped off. It was one of the spookiest rides of my life–drunk or sober. No one said a word and the old man drove like a bat out of hell. He looked straight ahead the whole way home and passed people on the right who were slow getting off the mark at stop lights. Back at Eric’s Gary and I got our cars and no one said anything as Eric’s dad strode into the house with Eric following behind.

Eric’s basement had an old piano and a television that could pick up channels from Chicago. Sometimes after a night of drinking, we’d come back and watch old movies. Eric had taken a few years of piano lessons and sometimes spent his spare time working on a classical piece. I had loaned him my sheet music to Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp Minor. He said it was incredibly difficult, but he did manage to get through the opening, which I think is one of the greatest ominous statements in all of music.

What I really liked about visiting Eric’s, of course, was his fancy stereo. It had huge speakers that brought a whole new dimension to the music I had only heard on my tinny old stereo. Eric especially liked piano music and we spent a good deal of time trying to find the perfect recording of a piece. Eric, being a math major, wanted to find the most precise, elegant and technically perfect performance. He liked the German performers–Kempff and Richter–who recorded on Deutsche Gramophon. I preferred the more Romantic interpreters–Rubenstein, Entrement, and Van Cliburn.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 was one of the pieces we became fascinated with that summer. My memory fails me as to the precise semester, but I saw this concerto performed at Indiana University by a doctoral student. Now all music is fun to watch performed live, and this is especially true of concertos in which a soloist plays against the orchestra. And of all the concertos, those for piano to be the most exciting to watch, because the performer can bang on the keys and release so much passion and energy.

I haven’t listened to the Piano Concerto No.5 for a number of years-maybe 10. But as I sit here now, writing today’s entry on a subway car hurtling along underground, I hear the last joyous movement playing in my head and can still picture that female piano major tackling the piece and her sense of triumph as she finished the last movement and stood up to face the cheers of the audience.

I can hear from its orchestration that it lies close to Beethoven’s 6th and 7th symphonies, though predating the latter. The third movement has a galloping cadence which, despite a mournful second theme, carries you along the entire way in a state of bliss.

Listening to this piece again makes me think that composing music must be the ultimate in artistic experiences. Music is unique among the arts because it deals primarily in the fourth dimension. For some reason, it also has a synaesthetic effect. That is, you perceive it aurally, but it has the ability to make your neurons fire in the same cadence of the rhythm and you end up tapping your foot. A composer, taking the sounds he hears in his head, can recreate those sounds in a way so that you hear them as well, and so, there is also a sympathetic effect as well: musically actually takes you into the head of the composer so you can experience the reality of another human being.

So that is how I know, from listening to the last movement of his Piano Concerto No.5 that Beethoven was, deep down, a joyful and happy person. Of course, he wrote passionate and heart-rending music that-because of his deafness-makes all of us think of him as a tragic figure. But how life-affirming and altruistic to take one’s profoundly moving emotions, both sad and happy, and bring them out for others to hear. If my mind spun out such wonderful music, I’d be a very happy person indeed.

Buy CD or download MP3s of Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”

Frederic Chopin, the Scherzo in B Minor, Opus 31

The French House, where I lived in my sophomore year of college in 1975, whose real name was Aydelotte Hall, was a long, low narrow cinderblock structure with two wings joined by a common lounge. Each wing had about twelve rooms on each of its two floors. The men lived on the ground floor; the women upstairs.

The rooms were long and narrow and divided by a wooden closet/bookshelf/closet divider which ran the length of the room  My first room abutted the boiler room and was nice and cozy for the most part. Unfortunately, the wooden divider between my room and the next did little to muffle sounds.

Brian, the guy next door had, like me, transferred from the same party dorm that I lived in the previous semester.  He was an affable soul–a self-taught polyglot–and so I thought he would be great to have next door. Unfortunately he was also a party animal. One night he stayed up until about two A.M. smoking dope and listening to Frank Zappa. To get back at him, the next morning around nine in the morning, I turned on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at full volume and went off to eat breakfast. About a week later, I saw him hoicking boxes out of his room. I asked what he was doing, and he said he was moving back to our old dorm. When I expressed regrets, he mumbled something about the dorm being a boring place. But for me, it will always remain a paradise.

The charm, as I mentioned in an earlier post, lay in the number of really interesting people there. The day I moved in, I was greeted at the door by a tall, gangly kid with a mass of curly black hair rising skyward from his head. Even more striking, however, was that he wore a ski jacket and both his arms were swathed in plaster casts. “I’m Bennett!” he exclaimed. “And I live right here.” He indicated an open door, the large end room. I stuck my head in the door to have look and was horrified by the site. It was an absolute pig sty, with dirty underwear and clothes strewn about the floor.  Every inch of desk and shelf space sprouted a riot of paper, music scores, and half-eaten pots of yogurt. “It’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid,” he said, but I haven’t been able to clean since I got these,” he said holding up his mantis-like appendages.

“Did you break them?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” he said. “Tendonitis.”

“What’s that,” I asked.

“It’s an inflammation of the tendons.”

“How did you get it?” I asked.

“I practiced too much.” He then told me he had come to I.U. to major in piano, but now, with his problem he was thinking of becoming a conductor. “How much did you practice?” I asked. “Oh, about 8 hours a day.”

Bennett was a year younger than me, and though a slob and an eccentric, he loved music, especially piano music, and we used to tell each other about pieces we liked or had discovered. Like me, he was a big fan of Horowitz, and he loved Chopin as well. One of Bennett’s favorite pieces was today’s work by Chopin, the Scherzo in B Minor, Opus 31. This piece has a certain demonic feel. It starts out with a low series of notes, almost drummed out like a call to attention. After that, there is a small explosion of intensity as Chopin states the theme. He returns back to the device used in the opening several times, changing the theme a little bit after each. Chopin then launches into a beautiful little waltz that sounds so sweet, lyrical and seductive. But he never stays with anything for too long. Later he changes to a grand, gushing romantic passage full of fire. Eventually he returns to the opening device a few more times, before restating the lush passage again and then rushes into an abrupt ending.

Bennett will reappear in my descriptions of the French House. He was there because like all musicians, he had an ear for languages as well and spoke French with a flourish. But what I liked best about him, apart from his love of music, was his ability to articulate his neuroses. Now I am as neurotic as the next person, but Bennett had the ability to articulate (or maybe it was just the inability to censor) every obsessive thought that came into his head. He was always ranting about something, a piece of music, a girl, his messy room, some book or score he was studying. It was great. In a funny kind of way, it made me feel less of an oddball than it was my wont to consider myself. Here was a peer who was at least as obsessive about things as I, if not more.

Chopin Biography

Buy MP3 or buy CD of Chopin’s Scherzo in B Minor, Opus 31

Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto Number 3

Casting my mind back to my discovery of Rachmaninov in my high school days, for some reason I seem to draw almost a complete blank when it comes to his Third Piano Concerto. It’s certain that I listened to it a lot, because I instantly recognized it, despite not having sat down to listen to it for nearly 20 years, when the movie, Shine came out.

The “Rach Three” supposedly was the piece that the young pianist–completely dominated and then disowned by his father–became obsessed with mastering.  Immediately after performing it for the first time in concert, he collapsed and went into a psychotic episode that lasted a good number of years.

In college, I took a course in abnormal psychology. Back then, the reigning theory of its etiology stated that psychotics are born with the genes that predispose them to psychosis. Should they be born into a normal family, they end up normal. Should their family turn out to be severely dysfunctional, in which the child has no emotional anchors or points of reference of sanity, they descend into the hell of psychosis.

In the movie Shine, the boy chose the concerto against his father’s wishes to prove he could stand on his own. It painted the father as a sick, domineering man. In one scene you note a number tattooed on the old man’s arm. Maybe he was a concentration camp survivor. Having lost all his family in the war, perhaps he felt he had to hold onto his own children–in an unnaturally controlling way–to keep from losing them. Another insidious legacy of the Nazis.

The Piano Concerto Number 3 is supposed to be one of the most difficult pieces to play. In Shine, the boy’s piano teacher shows him a plaster cast of Rachmaninov’s hands. They were gargantuan and that made the piece incredibly difficult to play as few pianists have that kind of span. What’s more, Rachmaninov, who made his living as a concert pianist–to make up for all he lost in leaving Russia after the Revolution–wrote the piece to showcase his own virtuosity at the keyboard. The piece is so difficult that the pianist to whom Rachmaninov dedicated the work, (a Joseph Hoffman) could not even perform it.  Finally, Rachmaninov wrote even more difficult passages for himself than the ones found in the published score.

Rachmaninov premiered this piece in November of 1909 in the U.S. at the age of 36. He performed it again in January the following year with the New York Symphony Society, another titan of music conducting–Gustav Mahler.  He was at the height of his powers, just past the midpoint of this life.

The first movement starts out with a beautiful, brooding, Slavic theme in the D minor key. The incredibly fluid runs of the second movement stuck in my mind where they played over and over again during the countless laps I swam while practicing on my swim team. The final movement starts with a bang and then runs off full of life and energy until the orchestra kicks in with a lush melody. The piano then takes this theme and weaves it around in intricate curlicues, fast but playful and pretty. The orchestra swells up, which slows the pianist down for a while, but it eventually finds ways of bursting out with joy and energy. Toward the end, it starts to sound a bit like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture and the Slavic feeling comes back rushing in to carry us along in a troika to the glorious ending.

Here is a cute story about Rachmaninov, from “Today in the World,” December 15, 1992:

Sergey Rachmaninoff was once honored at a dinner hosted by fellow pianist Arthur Rubinstein. During the course of the evening, Rachmaninoff said he thought the Grieg piano concerto the greatest ever written. When Rubinstein said he had just recorded it, Rachmaninoff insisted on hearing it then and there. During coffee, Rubinstein put on the proofs of the record and Rachmaninoff, closing his eyes, settled down to listen. He listened right through without saying a word. At the end of the concerto he opened his eyes and said, “Piano out of tune.”

It seems like in the past, every so often, a god would come down and walk among us poor mortals. I think of Albert Schweitzer, the good doctor, Bach scholar and interpreter. Or Ghandi, who practiced non-violence to move an empire. Rachmaninov surely sits on Mount Olympus now with his peers, not for having performed great feats of altruism, but for being such a genius who didn’t keep it to himself and gave us some of the most wonderful, exciting, life affirming music, despite his brush with mental illness. I wonder how long our current “cult of the victim” is going to last, and when the next Rachmaninov is going to arrive. I hope he or she shows up soon.

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