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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Form and Function in Mozart

Last evening, as pain shot down my arm from a chronic slipped disk in my neck, I attempted to play through some Mozart sonatas on my beat up and out-of-tune piano.

Mozart's piano sonatas are old friends. They were pieces I worked on as an undergrad when I switched my principle instrument from guitar to piano. My old and tattered score is marked up with cryptic notations from countless analysis classes - including a memorable one with Andrew Imbrie at Brandeis regarding the B-flat major Sonata #13 (K. 333). I also remember an eye-opening analysis by Donald Martino of the Sonata #4 (K. 282) in E-flat major (hint: the first subject starts in measure three after an introduction).

The wide gulf between the sound I hear in my head, and what I can produce on the keyboard is at times frustrating. But it can often be enlightening. My mind wanders and I make interesting discoveries when fingering the notes that I wouldn't think about otherwise.

For example, the issue of deciding how to select a group of notes to phrase together as a unit is rather complex. It's not simply a matter of reading a phrase mark placed over a group of dots on the page. The true musical idea should emerge from the sound of music itself, and this information is not explicitly notated in the score.

How should a musician psychically divine musical phrases? Shouldn't the performer act like a sponge and receive information directly from the structure of the musical work? Often musicians proactively pencil in their markings based on long-held preconceived notions and externally acquired ideas. They assert themselves into music rather than let the music lead them. They seek to control it rather than be controlled by it.

This led me to an idea (which is probably not original): A performer should take some time to open up, become a neutral observer, and mechanically process the notes in the score in robotic fashion and without input or emotion. By playing through a group of notes on the page, the musical phrase should emerge, reveal itself, and become obvious.

Although the structure of the phrase is dependant on many factors such as pitch, harmony, melodic contour, and rhythm, the intention should be clear by listening carefully. I've learned that good composers are not ambiguous about this. The information held within the notes on the page will speak for themselves if we let them.

The notion that music "needs" a layer of interpretation is a fallacy. The music, if allowed to express itself, is the interpretation.

Well-constructed quality music is surprisingly durable and resilient to performer-induced distortions. For example, a former German Professor of mine was an amateur violist. He would perform in the university orchestra and really struggled to just play the notes. The orchestra was a far cry from performing at a professional level, but they attempted to play masterworks from the great orchestral repertory: symphonies by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

The Vienna-born Professor (now deceased) confided in me that he couldn't actually play the notes, but that somehow the composer's ideas came through and were communicated despite this limitation. For some, it was a bad performance. But perhaps others were able to hear beyond the imperfections of the surface sound and take in the ideas that were implicit in the composer's musical structure.

I never forgot that.


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