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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)

Examples of Monodic and Polyphonic Music

Manuscript of the Musical Offering. Wikimedia. Public Domain

Ashish, the Geek Wrestler, once asked me for a sort of introduction to Western music. The reason I’m writing this is to save him from metal rock. But the topic is immense and greater than my knowledge, so I guess I can write brief notes on specific aspects, like this one.

One of the characteristics of Western music is polyphony, e.g. music made of melodies that travel independently throughout the composition though harmoniously combined with one another. This whole thing, of combining different melodies together, began in the Middle Ages, possibly by chance, and progressed in the subsequent centuries.

Western music can also be monodic, the opposite of polyphonic, whenever there is either just one melody (monophony) or when a melody prevails over other sounds that serve as mere accompaniment to the main star, the melody itself.

In this nocturne for piano solo by Frédéric Chopin (op. 27 no. 2) we have a cantabile melody, sometimes doubled and with ornaments, accompanied by arpeggios and bass sounds. It is evident here that the melody is the main protagonist, despite the surrounding notes and some voice layering here and there.

Let us first listen to the real thing (we chose Maurizio Pollini for his unromantic interpretation of this romantic work) and we’ll then listen to and view a computer graphical representation of the same work, which favours analysis.

In the computerized version below (by Stephen Malinowski) we notice that the double notes of the melody are not always parallel, which creates like a secondary voice. At the end of the piece there is some slight hint of polyphony. But on the whole this is not a polyphonic piece. Chopin is mainly monodic. Only at the end of his life he inserted some polyphony in his most mature works.

Let us now plunge into the great polyphony of Johann Sebastian Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No.4, iii, Presto.) This music – whose clockwork complexity I hope will not hopelessly bore an unaccustomed ear – is such hard stuff I prefer to propose a computerized version first (also by Stephen Malinowski.)

Different colours and timbers help to mentally separate the different voices. The exercise of following the voices separately is highly educating and can result in great pleasure. No easy thing at first though. I should have chosen a music with less voices (2 or 3 maximum,) but I couldn’t find a Midi music as satisfying as this one, although being able to identify 3 voices (hard already) or  just 2 can be all right at first. The representation is what one usually gets on a Midi sequencer, i.e. a computer software, such as Steinberg Cubase.

Now a version with real players (the performers being unknown to me).

The music of Bach here presented is a fugue (or fugato). In a fugue voices (parts) are not all equal. There is a subject or theme (like a main melody) that is repeated many times at different levels of pitch. It is good exercise as well trying to identify, among the bunch of voices, the subject of a fugue whenever it pops up here and there, which is pretty often.

The study and practice of “the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm” is called counterpoint. It was highly developed during the Renaissance and was common practice later, during the Baroque period (Wikipedia).
Independent in contour and rhythm. Very important in polyphony. If played or sung separately, voices or melodies still make sense!

One last music by this great German composer: the Brandenburg Concerto No.3 – iii, Allegro, rich with tremendous energy and beauty.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

Arturo Benedetti MichelangeliThe Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920–1995) is considered one of the greatest virtuosos of the 20th century. His style is classical in the sense of classicism and in a way that is more than emblematic. Why?

Italy never totally absorbed romanticism with its emphasis on excessive emotions, irrationality, free form etc. A sense of grace, elegant beauty and formal perfection together with a preference for simplicity over complexity have often been among the components of the Italian attitude in Arts.

Michelangeli’s style though (together with Maurizio Pollini’s) personifies all this even too much. He not only provides further evidence of this anti-romanticism present in the Italian culture – due to the Italian classical heritage (not many doubts about it.) Michelangeli’s peculiar (and sacred) approach to music crosses in our view a line by breaking the balance between form and emotion, between the rational and the lyrical side of a work – a balance which is typical of the best classicism. He reaches such a controlled perfection that his performances are prodigious, true, and proverbial, ok, but they are often very chilly as well (not many doubts either.)

[Maurizio Pollini has somewhat bypassed great Romantic piano music too - going though towards contemporary music - and his style is not very far from Michelangeli's, of whom he was also a pupil]

In other words, Italian musical classicism is brought by Michelangeli to a limit where passion and musical spontaneity seem to disappear. He never lets himself go and every single note is under his control.

In fact “Michelangeli was known for his note-perfect performances” (Wikipedia). “His fingers can no more hit a wrong note – writes Harold Schonberg, a famous New York Times music critic- or smudge a passage than a bullet can be veered off course once it has been fired.”

Michelangeli’s performances of Romantic authors are therefore generally baffling. His interpretation of Frédéric Chopin‘s Ballade in G minor, one of the great works of Romantic music, can very well bring out this point, we believe:

As Squishym (a Youtube user) well observes “it sounds detached for the most part and the timing has a lot of strange hesitations for no apparent reason (perhaps an attempt to simulate emotion?)” Yes, very well said indeed.

An opinion confirmed by the above said Harold Schonberg, who wrote: “The puzzling part about Michelangeli is that in many pieces of the romantic repertoire he seems unsure of himself emotionally, and his otherwise direct playing is then laden with expressive devices that disturb the musical flow.”

In Domenico Scarlatti‘s sparkling and rationally crystal clear baroque Michelangeli seems instead much more at ease. This beautifully and very fast played sonata shows all his supreme coolness.

Michelangeli was sometimes considered at his best with the impressionistic French repertoire (Debussy and Ravel). Here follows Chopin’s Berceuse, where the flaws shown in the Ballade in G minor are in our view not present because of the pre-impressionistic genre of this marvelous piece.

Benedetti Michelangeli’s playing here radiates its exquisite magic.

Finally Ferruccio Busoni’s piano transcription of Bach’s Chaconne in d-moll BWV 1004 for violin solo. The art of Bach, Busoni and Michelangeli combine to bring to life an awesome, unparalled musical experience. As the teacher and commentator David Dubal observed, Michelangeli “was best in the earlier works of Beethoven and seemed insecure in Chopin, but he was demonic in such works as the Bach-Busoni Chaconne and the Brahms Paganini Variations.”

Demonic.

Let us listen to this demonic Michelangeli (the performance here being unfortunately – and horribly – cut into two separate videos):

[May 2014 update : a different, possibly better, performance of Bach-Busoni's Chaconne by A.B. Michelangeli - all in one piece]

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Other related posts:

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

On my piano teacher, Pauline O’Connor, pupil of Michelangeli:

A Refined but Passionate Celtic Goddess of Piano Music is No More? NO! She’s Alive and Kicking!

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