musical fossils

Clementi, Kuhlau, Burgmuller and all those obscure composers from the early 19th century are all having a revival thanks to transplanted or peripatetic pianists from the former Soviet Union.  Skip the major works of Beethoven and Chopin and fast forward to Tschaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Grieg is a composer oft favored by the Russkies conceivably due to the folk element and not venturing out of tonality. But usually his music is executed by them with Stalinistic heaviness and aggression, a style most certainly unrecognizable and no doubt would have been unapproved by the composer.

Somewhere around the late Romantic in music the tape recorder jams and only can pendulate between the two periods. (JS who? Oh, the recidivist religious guy who wrote all those cantatas and masses?) It’s like getting stuck on a desert island with only a few books with critical parts  missing.  But that’s what happened anyway in Russia for 70 years. 

Artistically they were cut off from the rest of the world. And even if it weren’t the critical loss of interaction, ideology was to repeat what was already done so as not to question “authority”.  So even if music offered a limited possibility for self-expression, the stern judges of the establishment pretty much snuffed it out.

So music turned into doing what the teacher wants–note perfect, memorized, the EXACT arm and finger motions,  in other words, to be a faithful clone of the teacher who herself is a copy of a copy,  going back to some obscure period where no one can justify or explain WHY the state of affairs has to be so. Except that in the 19th century, performers like Clara Schumann used to popularize the music of composers, like her husband’s,  by concertizing  around Europe, for those who would not get to hear such music otherwise or be able to play themselves.

So performers were human recording devices. In an age when mechanical recordings are practically universal,  who needs human tape recorders? Who needs teachers to turn students into human recording devices mainly to satisfy their own frustrations and neuroses?  You don’t. And in fact, one didn’t need them 50 years ago or even more. But someone forgot to tell the music academies.   So if their little robots win prizes, thanks to drilling them like the military, the glory of an unachieved career will be finally be theirs by proxy.

Fortunately, though, in most enlightened music schools in the West, individual development is favored, not the force-feeding of the KGB. They appreciate how WRONG it is to put children as young as 7 years old in front of an adult jury to them judge how they are playing (many of them not experts, anyway), BEFORE  developing any kind of internal musical compass themselves. Instead, they are thrust in an environment that even professional musicians have difficulty with. 

It is SO BAD to have children always looking outward for approval (first their teachers, then the JUDGES) and NEVER giving them the chance to develop their own sensors. This would be the same as constantly having to ask others, “am I hot or cold?” completely bypassing the feedback system that everyone is born with, a necessary part of the subjective aspect of music. When this is done, using the kids’ faithful parroting to glorify the teachers, sponsors and/or the institutions, this is simply disgusting.

One should always ask the question “WHO is benefitting?” Music competitions, except perhaps modest internal ones, do not benefit kids. They get a false notion of just about everything connected to music–the comparative worth of their achievements (not much in the outside world), using music to impress and get approval from adults, instead of personal development at their own pace,  and last but not least, as an artificial sense of superiority or inferiority in relation to their peers when this is total nonsense.

The adults, DO benefit, however.  They ride the glory train pulled by undeveloped child musicians (making peace in the process, don’t forget…) The kids can never really relax, play for fun or for mental self-exploration.  This opportunity to express themselves, supposedly be the raison d’etre why parents shell out money for music lessons (unless they, like the teachers and institutions, crave reflected glory also) simply was STOLEN from them. No wonder so many of them hate “music” or give up in despair.

The idea of musical competition itself is an oxymoron, or self-contradicting term.  It broadcasts the completely wrong idea that you can be better than your mate by playing the teacher’s note perfect instructions.  Instead of fostering teamwork, the implcation is that you do whatever you can to grab inflated money prizes by stepping over your colleagues. The idea is NOT to serve music, but to WIN. This is WRONG AND BAD and horribly destructive psychologically.

At least, if the music used were relevant, maybe some justification could be made for the music competition treadmill. However, taking the superficial elements of culture and formalizing them is the same as taking a fossil and trying to bring it back to life.  Focusing on certain developmental composers as the abovementioned is like working on a 386K computer these days. This is not even to get into the subject of computerized music which is light years away from the tinklings of the late 18th century. Of course “minor” composers in any era are worthy to be heard if considered in the correct context and presented in as accurate a style as possible.

But it’s even more ridiculous to derive pathos from the abovementioned transitional composers whose music is relatively uncomplicated.  It’s stylistically WRONG to dress up music of the Enlightenment with the sighs and longings of the late Romantics. It’s even mad, in other words, crazy. I never thought I would see the day when simple sonatinas would be invested with so much shmaltz. And it is even more astonishing that judges of competitions lap it up. Maybe they think that is culchure?

There is still a place for performers of music, but true interpreters.  Knowledge of history and style is important. The latter is often lost to musicians of the Far East, especially those whose education has been the “juko” or cramming of facts type.  I have personally witnessed singers from Korea and Japan who really do think that you don’t need to know what you are singing but it is enough to trot out the prescribed syllables on each note (not necessarily correctly pronounced). This sort of ritualizes Western music to a kind of mechanical incantation, which if one doesn’t have the infrastructure to fully understand it, at least one can somehow perceive it through the lens of one’s culture, however distorted.

So one doesn’t know if Kuhlau and Clementi are pleased or turning over in their graves when Russian teachers trot out their little clones playing sickly sentimental, utterly blown out of proportion versions of their works.  Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms have even more to complain about since on the whole, approaching their compositions with typical superficiality is even more of an insult. Imprinting one’s ignorance on the works of others and above all, one’s ego (like the composer needs me!)  makes it all the more unbearable.


A recent demonstration of the futility of the above was borne out by the Magnificat Concert at the Mormon University Hall November 30, 2008.

It’s only a tribute to the mimicking abilities of children to have them trot out sophisticated pieces they don’t have a clue about. This was evidenced by a late mazurka by Chopin played by a 12 year old or other fin-de-siecle 19th century music that have absolutely no relevance to the life of kids in the 21st century. The Russians living in a time warp, ’round about the Revolution of 1917 relive their own fantasies of fame and glory through kids whose individuality are suppressed in order to produce clones of the same teachers.

This is not right or good at all.  Who needs now to MEMORIZE a 4 hand piano duet by Kuhlau that had only limited relevance back then?  Who needs sickly sentimental waltzes by Russian composers that were anyway, marginal works by them?

Musically speaking,  such a facade collapses when a 12 year old doesn’t really have the right lilt of a mazurka or the faintest understanding of the harmony of “The Poet’s Heart” by Grieg. The worst was a little robot who came out on the stage everytime with a plastered on smile that said “my teacher and everyone else tells me I am great.” In the old days it was considered bad policy to give a child a swelled head over their alleged abilities. Conceivably such kids are encouraged to grow up with the same ego-mania as their teachers and to be pathetically craving public approval for the rest of their lives.

The real, as opposed to perceived acheivements, were also glaringly apparent in the much touted first position violin playing and the out of tune, out of synch Jasmine Choir. The latter was a mish-mash of unintelligible languages and virtual lack of dynamics. 

The self-praise of the website for the Magnificat Institute even could not point out to any noteworthy accomplishment that is not done routinely by any local music school, including slap-up choirs in any kiddie establishment.

Instead, there is the time-warped obsession with race and nationality that no one really gives a damn about these days.

What really is the point of “not wanting to offend sensibilities” by singing part or the whole of a program with Christmas music at the same time bragging that a Jewish woman allegedly went to the Church of the Sepulchre to deliver some prayers for some Italian nurses?

Sick, sick, sick…


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