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How Can Japanese Little Girls Play European Classical Music Perfectly?

Japanese little girl. Click for attribution and to zoom in

In the previous post we have shown two little Japanese girls capable of perfectly playing some music of the classical period.

Which surprised me in many respects and made me reflect.

Germany, Vienna and Italy

First of all by ‘classical style’ we mean the music created from the mid 1700’s until the first decades of 1800 thanks to contributions from Germany (Southern Germany – Mannheim etc. –  but not only), Vienna and Italy, which changed the spirit & the technique of music into something inspired by the ideals of ancient classical art.

In other posts we’d mused about this magical region where many centuries earlier Roma and Germania met (and clashed,) ie the Roman provinces (Germania Superior, Raetia, Noricum and Pannonia) along the axis of what was once the limes germanicus or frontier of the ancient Roman Empire (look at this map!) that separated the world of Rome from the un-romanized Germanic (and non Germanic) tribes (read more: 1, 2, 3.)

It may be a simplification (and an obsession,) but that ‘classical music’ in its narrow sense (in the broad sense it refers to all Western art music since its beginnings) was much later to be born in such cultural crossroads – well, it didn’t happen in our opinion by mere chance.

[Roman & non Roman. Where are hence the traces of this duality in today’s societies? - we had asked ourselves]

Haydn. Portrait by Thomas Hardy. Wikipedia image

Now this ‘classical music’, that followed Baroque and developed before the spread of Romanticism, is characterized by formal balance, a certain restraint and a terse simplicity attained with extreme economy of means together with a very refined taste: which makes the performance of such art daunting despite its apparent easiness. Its model is in fact that of Hellenic art, although adapted to modern times (and to modern music, since we know so little of ancient music.)

This may be a reason why playing Mozart, Haydn or Boccherini and Clementi ‘well’, that is, with the necessary purity, is often more difficult than rendering subsequent and technically harder pieces of the Romantic and contemporary repertoire. I saw pianists who could easily play Brahms and Scriabin but sweated their way through the end of a Mozart adagio.

The Japanese and the Russians

Now, that these Japanese children, coming from a different planet, are able to do this extremely well – isn’t it amazing?

Classical balance and taste is nothing one can improvise. One needs to have breathed such air.

Take the Russians, such formidable musicians. Not completely European ok but closer to us than the Japanese for sure, they have traditionally always hesitated before the classical repertoire (and when they didn’t … the result was often not among the best.)

So, the Russians fail where the Japanese don’t – there must be something in those Eastern cultures I am not aware of.

Some readers have got any ideas?

ψ

In the meanwhile, as an Italian, I know the Japanese – a few I’ve met who study bel canto in Rome – love Italian opera quite a lot whose style always resisted the complexity of the romantic and late-romantic German harmonies and voicing (Verdi Bellini and Donizetti etc. on one hand, Wagner or Richard Strauss on the other hand: two different universes altogether! Roman & non Roman?)

Once more. What these oriental people may find in the Western ‘classical’ style of music?

Mario: “By the way, I heard that classical music makes hogs as fat as whales.”

MoR: “What?? Are you kidding me?”

Mario: “It is true! This Vietnamese pig farmer, Nguyen Chi Cong, found a new way to make his 3,000 hogs eat more quickly and happily by having them listen daily to the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. It seems the soothing effect is also working for other domestic animals!”

MoR: *Rolling eyes*

ψ

Related posts:

Music, Politics and History

Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

From the two Sides of the Roman Limes

See also the series dedicated to the notions of ‘classic’ & ‘classical’ (1, 2 and 3)

Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds

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In some posts we tried to identify the cultural traits common to the people whose ancestors were subjects of the Roman Empire. One of the themes of this blog is in fact any possible remnant of the Ancient Roman world still surviving today.

The borderline or Limes of the Roman empire meant also the separation between what was Roman and what was non Roman. Particularly interesting is the central European Limes along the Rhine and the Danube, a sort of natural frontier of the empire since 7 C.E. onwards.

Ok, Roman and non Roman. Where are hence the traces of this disjunction in today’s societies?

Well, a lot of traces are there, since for example when Christianity breaks in two during the XVI century C.E. “is it by chance – argues French historian Braudel – that the separation of the fields occurs exactly along the axis of the Rhine and the Danube, the double frontier of the Roman Empire?” Really a good point, not many doubts about it.

Protestants and Catholics Split along the Limes

Luther in 1529 by Lucas Cranach.jpg

In 1517 the Protestant Reformation began with Luther nailing his 95 theses that will split West Christianity into Protestants and Catholics. “From 1545 (Wikipedia) the Counter-Reformation began in Germany ….Central and north-eastern Germany were by this time almost wholly Protestant, whereas western and southern Germany remained predominantly Catholic”.

This has to do with the Roman Empire border: namely the descendants of the romanized Germans mostly stayed with the Roman Catholics, which is amazing, while the descendants of the non romanized ones, plus other northern folks, left. From this fracture sprouted Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, German Reformed, Presbyterian, Calvinists, Puritans etc.

Above you can see Luther in 1529 portrayed by the German painter Lucas Cranach.

The Ultimate Roman Border.
Attachment to a Heritage

UNESCO World Heritage LIMES logo

Some land reconnaissance now. First a nice map of the Roman Empire and its provinces. Then Wikipedia infos on the German Limes (Wikipedia is always a good initial info source, but nothing more). Also this map of the Roman provinces of Raetia and Germania Superior is not bad. And finally some info on the German Roman Limes, ultimate protection against the external Germanic tribes (Limes is Latin for Limit, border). A web site that now is no more was kept by those German federal states that actually were/are inside the Roman Empire. In it we did read:

“The Upper German-Raetian Limes (“Obergermanisch – Raetischer Limes” = ORL = Limes of the Roman provinces of Raetia and Germania Superior: see a map) marked the ultimate Roman border line in the north of the Roman Empire. It was erected against the Germanic people who were a constant threat to the antique world. Over a length of 550 km from the river Rhine in the northwest to the river Danube in the south-east the Limes extends across the four German federal states Rheinland-Palatinate, Hesse, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria.”

Kastell Welzheim, near the Limes, Porta Praetoria

These people are greatly attached to this heritage and have succeeded in getting a certain number of UNESCO-world heritage recognitions, like Regensburg (Ratisbona), and even the Projekt Weltkulturerbe Limes (project for the world heritage recognition of the German Limes) seems to have been accepted.

In the web site of the Deutsche Limes-Strasse Verein (the German Alliance For the Limes Roads) we read:

“the outer Upper Germanic-Rhaetian boundary wall (“Limes”) is one of the most outstanding archaeological monuments in Central Europe and has recently been put on the world cultural heritage list of the UNESCO. Many of the installations associated with the wall were unearthed as the result of excavations recently carried out by the different Regional Offices for the Protection of Ancient Monuments and have been conserved because of their excellent state of preservation.”

“They include forts, baths and towers together with parts of the fortifications themselves such as ramparts, ditches, walls and palisades. Also taken into consideration are museum-like facilities such as protective structures covering Roman ruins which are explained by plans, photographs and finds as well as archaeological parks located in the neighbourhood of boundary wall structures with reconstructed or restored exhibitions. Many of these areas are called “archaeological reserves” ….

“The German Limes Road runs close to the Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes from the Rhine to the Danube. Most of the forts were founded at the beginning or middle of the 2nd century and existed until the end of the Roman occupation 260/270 A.D.. The “Limes” runs from Rhein-brohl to Regensburg ……We hope that you will get …a better understanding of the Roman past of this country and have a relaxing holiday …on the former borders of the Roman Empire.”

The Initial Battle of the Gladiator

For Roman-movies fiends (I am one of them) the Roman fortress Castra Regina (thence Regensburg) was founded in 179 A. D. for the Third Italic Legion during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (we are in the ancient Roman province of Raetia). Marcus Aurelius fought battles along the Limes against German (and non German) tribes.

Sounds like The Gladiator initial astounding battle scene doesn’t it? Well, that scene probably referred to the Marcomannic wars fought during the reign of Marcus Aurelius with battles mostly fought further north and beyond the Danube.

It doesn’t matter though since the area well corresponds to that film battle and its marvellously recreated atmosphere (see Regensburg in this map of Raetia and Germania Superior).

Pilgrimage

We are mentioning Raetia because we were there last August on a sort of pilgrimage along the Limes, and found out that Castra Regina is more or less the core of Regensburg‘s Old City or Altstadt. Thischarming city is located in north-eastern Bavaria, Oberpfalz.

Pfalz is German for Latin Palatium, which refers to the Palatine Hill in Rome (Latin Mons Palatinus). It is the hill where Rome started (according to legend and now also archaeology: first huts, then the town, on this and other hills) and where the Roman Emperors much later lived (the English palace, indicating an important building, comes from there).

From Palatinus derives Palatinate (Latin: Palatinatus), the area of the later German Holy Roman Empire, a sort of Middle Ages continuation of the Roman Empire. So it all fits together, as one can see.

The Last Italian City

Regensburg (Latin and Italian Ratisbona)

In Regensburg – right at the extreme (German) line of all this, the Limes going well beyond Germany – the population will later become Protestant, even though it has inherited this sort of Italian merry character, with people sitting in open-air cafés etc., like us in Rome.

“We are the last Italian city”, they say, which sort of angered some Munich friends of ours who said they were the real last Italians, not only because of the Catholic faith but also because of their even merrier festas with people dancing on tables in Oktober Fest.

They certainly said this to please us, but there is some truth, I believe: their elegance, their incredible love for Opera (more than us today alas) and good wine (like us) etc.

More on Regensburg arriving, which is a good observation point, and more of course on Bavaria and all, so to say, romanized Germany.

Ψ

Marcus Junkelman clad as a RomanPS. We cannot leave this topic without mentioning an incredible person:
Dr. Marcus Junkelmann from Munich (*), world-famous pioneer of experimental archaeology, living in a castle and speaking fluently Latin, we heard. Historian of Roman Legions and Army, he has reconstructed Roman weapons, infantry & cavalry techniques.

We see his picture on the left, this is his web site and Dr. Wilfried Stroh is one of his colleagues and possibly friend. People like them are getting numerous also in parts of the UK, who is also becoming very pro-Roman (also the organisation Nova Roma, “dedicated to the restoration of classical Roman religion, culture and virtues”, shows how Roman mania can be both weird and fascinating).

References. The Braudel quote is from La Mediterranée, Fernard Braudel, Flammarion 1985. Translation by Man of Roma. Fernard Braudel is one of the greatest French intellectuals. Here a few links, just to give an idea of his work:
A nice synthesis on Braudel in English, plus the Fernand Braudel Center, at Binghamton University, State University of New York (“founded in September 1976 to engage in the analysis of large-scale social change over long periods of historical time”).

Ψ

Other related posts:

Music, Politics and History
From the two Sides of the Roman Limes

Music, Politics and History

Dimitri Shostakovich birth house. Wikipedia. GNU Free Documentation License

20th-century Music? Eastern Europe

The Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) is not boring or academic. He is profound. It took me decades to really appreciate his music.

It is hard to understand why sometimes beauty requires a long path to be fully grasped while other times it is so easily attainable.

Shostakovich is a master in everything he does, symphonic & vocal music, piano-solo music, chamber music (the quartets etc.). His polytonal solutions and the sense of dislocation they produce seem much more interesting to me than Russian Prokofiev’s (1891-1953).

Prokofiev’s music is more brilliant but I definitely prefer Shostakovich’s. One can really get so much peace from his depths. Great music – like great literature and thought – can provide inner peace and education of the soul.

Listen to this “unedited live performance by Wendy Warner – cello – and Irina Nuzova – piano – of Shostakovich’s Sonata Op. 40 for Cello and Piano, 4th movement, at the Phillips Collection” – Youtube.

Russian contribution to 20th-century music – and eastern Europe’s contribution- is immense.

Many eastern European musicians (take for example composers like Arvo Pärt and György Ligeti) are perfect musical craftsmen, are very inspired and really capable of going beyond Romanticism without destroying musical beauty.

One of the reasons of this success is due, in my opinion, to the fact that greatest music regions such as Austria and Germany got lost for years in hopeless, neurotic experimentation (serialism etc.). This decadence does not include Paul Hindemith (1895–1963), a very interesting composer I am so eager to know better, while Richard Strauss (1864–1949), being a late Romantic, belongs to the 19th century. This is my personal view, I’ll repeat it, and surely many people will not agree.

I remember I was a youth in Rome between the 1960s and the 1970s and while trying to study musical composition privately I became more and more disillusioned (and disgusted) when I realised that no other music would have been accepted outside the Neue-Wiener-Schule type of music (Second Viennese School), i.e. twelve-tone or serial-technique music.

I wouldn’t be surprised if women somewhere in the world had abortion while listening to it (I have to check, it MUST have happened somewhere damn!)

This feeling of oppression we felt (some of my fellow music students sharing my view though not all of them) may be due to the Roman musical provincialism of that time, but I assure you that those days, for wannabe composers, were really dull and depressing in many other Italian and European places as well…

Dimitri Shostakovich on a postal stamp. From Wikipedia. Fair use

Two things should be noted here I believe.

1) The crisis of Germany in the last century – political, cultural, psychological – after each world war: it has been discussed a bit in this blog and it implies many tragedies, although tragedy seems to befit the Germans (follies of the Nibelungs, the Italian journalist and historian Indro Montanelli used to say: he though loved the Germans). This crisis seems however to be fully overcome. The German-speaking people of the southern regions are less tragic, or they are a bit, though attenuated by so to say Latin measure and taste.

As far as very recent German contemporary music goes, we know very little about it.

2) To this German crisis it has to be added the end of the Austrian Empire (Kaiserreich Österreich) occurred at the end of WW1. Such empire was a remnant of the Holy Roman Empire, a direct remnant in its turn of the Roman Empire. The great Austrian writer Joseph Roth gives us a refined though melancholic account of finis Austriae, ie the end of Big (enchanting) Austria.

Both the German & the Austrian crisis in various phases of the 20th-century created (among excellent contributions) waves of pessimism in many cultural fields – to make it simple.

This greatly influenced the European Continent’s 20th-century Zeitgeist (‘spirit of the age’), it influenced my generation (take Freud, or Adorno, a bit gloomy, to cite only thinkers etc.; of music we’ve already spoken) and all Italy as well, a neighbour of the German-speaking areas, an intense relationship occurring between the 2 poles.

To-and-fro influence mechanisms, history is so fascinating! Germanization of Italy during my generation (during 1800 and 1900 to be more correct, although French influence was strong too) and much earlier romanization of the southern German-speaking folks at the times of the ancient Romans and also much later until the apex of our decadence (1700s-1800s.) We already mentioned Bavaria and Regensburg (ancient-Roman fortress Castra Regina along the Roman-Empire Limes or borderline) in a previous post, which correspond to parts of the Ancient-Roman province of Raetia, while to the east we had the Roman province of Noricum, coinciding more or less to modern German-speaking Austria.

Cultured Italians (few are left) realise how close these South German-speaking people are to us. I personally feel this encounter between Roma and Germania so special and sacred.

This is why I now feel like talking about one of the most sublime outcomes of this encounter. It is a splendid musical fruit – this post is dedicated to music, after all – whose apparent simplicity hides a really hard-to-get beauty – since it is one of the most perfect beauties ever produced by man. The outstanding composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni (half Italian and half German btw) was able to grasp this beauty only at a later stage of his life.

Germans & Italians Meet.
Taste and Knowledge

Mozart in 1780, portrayed by Johann Nepomuk della Croce. Detail. Wikipedia. Public domain

Speaking of the infancy and of the first adolescence of Mozart, the American musicologist Donald Jay Grout (History of Western Music) argues (not having the original text, I am translating from the Italian 1993 Feltrinelli 7th edition, Storia della Musica in Occidente, pp. 509-510):

“After 1760, the two principal national idioms [i.e. musical idioms, MoR] were the Italian and the German. Italy still remained the fatherland of music and the mecca for any student who aimed at becoming a composer … Which were at that time the differences between Italian and German music?”

Jay Grout answers at the end of the paragraph with the words of appreciation the Austrian composer Haydn – composition teacher of both Mozart and Beethoven – had addressed to Mozart’s father:

“In front of God and as an honest man, I’m telling you that your son is the greatest composer I have ever known, either personally or by name. He has taste and, what counts more, he has the deepest knowledge of composition.”

“These – Jay Grout argues – were the two essential elements: taste, instinct for what is appropriate, awareness of limits; and knowledge plus technique in order to say what one has to say in a complete, clear and persuasive manner. Generally speaking, it can be said that taste was the speciality of the Italians, while knowledge was that of the Germans; Mozart in his style combines both.”

Italian version

ψ

Related posts:

Permanences I
Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds
From the two Sides of the Roman Limes
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

See also:

How Can Japanese Little Girls Play European Classical Music Perfectly?
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