The Guarneri String Quartet (photo by Erwin Fischer) and Charles Avsharian
Ever wondered just how crazy and/or avant garde your favorite composer was? SHAR Apprentices James Engman and Josephine Llorente have put together this handy graph! It displays, on X and Y axes, the relative sanity and aesthetic taste of your favorite compsers. Agree, disagree, or think the graph needs a slight change? Leave a comment for the SHAR Apprentices below!
As far as child prodigies go, Mendelssohn was pretty grounded and together. Felix and his three siblings were born with silver(ish) spoons; later he and his wife Cecile had five children of their own. Yawn. And although I love listening to/playing his music, Mendelssohn was also famously more cautious than some of his zanier contemporaries (ahem, Wagner). Double yawn.
Gershwin’s life/personality seemed relatively normal; he was a Brooklyn-bred, first generation, high school dropout. And oh yeah, he was also sort of a musical genius. Although Porgy and Bess was initially slammed by critics, it was later lauded as one of the most important operas in history.
Franz Josef Haydn
Although Haydn had a bit of a rough start to his life, including bouts of starvation and homelessness, later in life he enjoyed wealth and fame in London and Vienna. He was also described as likeable and humble — no easy feat for a prolific and successful composer.
I know it’s hard to view Papa Haydn as revolutionary in his musical contributions, but for us string players, but he was definitely a trailblazer... can you even imagine what our rep would look like if his string quartets didn’t exist?
I don’t have perfect pitch, but in my heyday in music school, I pretty much had an A440 stuck in my head at all times. Like me and George Costanza, Schumann went nuts over one note. (Remember this episode of Seinfeld?) All kidding aside, the reason he was institutionalized was because of severe depression. His works were fairly conservative in regard to form, but he helped push the boundaries of romantic music.
Johann Sebastian Bach
In his time, Bach was a name synonymous with “musician.” Being from a large family of musicians, Johann met and exceeded all of his expectations. Having never left Germany once in his career, he was a bit of a homebody. Besides conquering the study of counterpoint and being one of the greatest virtuosi ever, he was pretty much just a full-time family man.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Our favorite hearing-impaired composer places high on the crazy and genius/influential scale. He was definitely the tortured artist type — moody, passionate, and absolutely brilliant. We can thank him for bringing us into the Romantic era.
The mystery of his impoverished childhood has been debated — many think he may have been employed at the request of his parents in a dance hall. The circumstances of that appointment raise more questions regarding his very close relationship with Clara Schumann and his troubles successfully courting women. On many nights long-bearded Brahms could be seen in cheap clothes, walking with no socks on, to his favorite pub the Red Hedgehog. He would often hand out candy to children along the way. Despite his eccentricities, his music was labeled by the other half of the War of the Romantics as being “old-fashioned.” He admittedly focused on the study of counterpoint and imitation and development — much like his role-models, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
As a musician I feel like I have the right to say that MUSICIANS ARE CRAZY. Sure Shosty was often described as a bundle of nerves, and he even allegedly had some OCD, but he was a child prodigy and musical genius. I should also probably mention that he had to grapple with keeping Stalin happy and staying alive. With the cards he was dealt, I think Shostakovich was pretty together.
Shostakovich’s music is deeply emotional and restrained in the best way. Even though he’s pretty average on this particular matrix, he’s ranked high in my book.
Because of his fascination with opiates, some of you may think Berlioz should be ranked higher on the crazy scale, but hear me out. If you heard that a famous rock musician did some drugs and then created a composition based on that experience, you would probably shrug and move on. Berlioz was just ahead of his time. After writing Symphony Fantastique and other works, we can thank Berlioz for significantly changing the instrumentation of the modern orchestra.
In my opinion, there’s a "good crazy" and a "bad crazy." People who are bad crazy hurt people for no reason. People in the good crazy category think outside the box and have weird interests like Cage, who happened to be an expert of mushrooms (the funghi, not the drug).
Without a doubt, Cage was a leader in avant-garde music. Just looking at one of his pieces shows that the dude thought way, way outside the box. I’m pretty sure he’s the only person who could release a work of silence and still be super respected by the music community.
Johann Strauss II
Strauss was the tin pan alley composer of classical music. He came from a musical family; his father Johann Sr. and two brothers were also composers. When I think of a musical Austrian family I think of a happy bunch, but the Strauss’ were less like the Austrian Von Trapps (pre-war, of course) and more like the American Jacksons. Johann Jr. and his father were in serious competition, and we all know who won the title of "The Waltz King."
His ex-friends would say Stockhausen totally belongs in a looney bin. After reading this article, I can understand why. Maybe there’s some bias in the article, but Stockhausen is at best portrayed as eccentric and delusional. I can’t even imagine what it was like to rehearse the the Helicopter quartet with Stockhausen, who is often described as a hot-tempered perfectionist.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky was known to be extremely sensitive and painfully shy. His anxiety began early in his childhood and continued in his adult life; there is speculation that he even ended his own life. The Russian composer made his most significant impact in ballet music, but his worship of Mozart influences his work's strict classical form.
I'm not sure how many of you all out there read Jeremy Eichler's profile in The New Yorker on the German violinist Christian Tetzloff. If you have, good on you. If you haven't, you should pick up a copy soon. Most likely the article – and Tetzlaff's approach to music – will challenge your notion of how a violin should sound. However, it's an exciting and important challenge, no matter what you decide about Tetzlaff. Tetzlaff is an well-respected soloist, but he's not a soloist who's found success and recognition by being flamboyant, a crowd-pleaser, or a crossover star. Rather, his success comes from his ability to play "an unusally wide range of tones, from the refined to wild" (Eichler). To put not too fine a point on it, Tetzlaff even once told a a group of students, "Beauty is the enemy of expression!"
Even though many fellow musicians admire Tetzlaff, critics have occassionally been impatient with his playing. This is, of course, because Tetzlaff is upsetting the conventions of the instrument. If Tetzlaff wants to include harsher sounds in his playing, it comes with a price: beauty, and perhaps the ire of listeners who expect the Romantic composers to be played a certain way:
Most important, he [Tetzlaff] refuses to embrace what might be called the School of the Big Tone: the broad, velvety sound, sustained with uniformly wide vibrato, that many listeners in the age of Izhak Perlman have come to think is how a violin should sound. Tetzlaff's palette extends to harsh or crushed tones, even to sounds that he has purposefully leached of color. And older French musician of my aquaitance dislikes Tetzlaff's playing precisely because such ugliness is allowed in the door.
Rather than exhaust Eichler's article, I want to end to send you toward it with a hint of its praise for Tetzlaff. As Eichler demonstrates, audiences do respond to Tetzlaff. Eichler ends the essay with a description of Tetzlaff playing a Bach concert in a medium-sized church (and only two-thirds full) in Dresden. Eichler expresses a quiet but intense admiration for Tetzlaff's playing, and he senses that most of the concertgoers feel the same way as him:
A marathon Bach recital could easily try the endurance of people seated in hard pews, but the concertgoers in Dresden sat in rapt silence. I attributed this to a distinctive aspect of Tetzlaff's charisma. Onstage, many violin soloists adopt a confident swagger, but in Dresden Tetzlaff, as whenever he plays Bach, seemed to expose layer after layer of vulnerability, creating an atmosphere of naked confession.
I'm squirming a little bit in my seat as I write this, but I can't imagine a better concert. Beauty is only one register of expression, and it's a shame that artists often stay there too long. I can imagine other responses to Tetzlaff though. What do you all think? How central is beauty to your playing? How important is a wide range of expression?
Over the years I have purchased sheet music, borrowed violin sheet music from the library, and given away scores upon scores (pun intended) of other pieces of violin sheet music. But of all the pieces that have been given and taken away, I have found that the following five books will stay with me.
As of Wednesday, J.S. Bach would be 327. In honor of his special day, I thought it would be fitting to give homage to one of his greatest works – arguably one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, especially for a stringed instrument – the Chaconne.
One of my favorite bars in Ann Arbor is Old Town Tavern: it's laid-back, unpretentious, and while the food isn't anything to write home about, it's decent bar fare. The drinks are reasonably priced, but not so cheap that you get college students passed out in the corner booths. As one Charles Dickens character from Little Dorrit likes to say, "There's no nonsense about it." In short, it's comfortable.
But now that I've heard about Classical Revolution, a collective of musicians who bring Mendelssohn and Bach and so on to bars in cities like San Francisco and Detroit and Atlanta, and who have a chapter in Ann Arbor, I'm wondering: would a string ensemble belong at Old Town? Is my favorite bar the right place for this music?
I'm not sure if I'd be more worried about the bar losing its atmosphere or the music losing its impact.
SHAR Apprentice Megan Fedor takes delight in Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Part of the joy of this piece, she argues, is its specific, musical representation of the Gospel of St. Matthew.
When asked the question, “What sacred music do you find compelling?” my mind instantly goes to Johann Sebastian Bach and his St. Matthew Passion. What makes this work a masterpiece goes back to Bach’s upbringing, understanding and involvement in the church, and his musical genius.