Category Archives: music (from the point of view of a listener)

Shostakovich’s fifth in concert



On Saturday evening, December 1, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall given by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sergey Smbatyan, a very young conductor.

What great seats I had! Box 15 in the first tier. A seat near the front of the first tier which overlooked the stage. I prefer not to sit in the so called Parquet section (the lowest, orchestra level). The acoustics, I have been told by other concertgoers, are better higher up, and one has a view of the whole orchestra.





The program included a very recent work: Travel Notebook Suite for Piano and Orchestra (2017) composed by Alexey Shor, a young Ukrainian composer. It was an engaging piece that “worked” and that kept one’s interest sustained with variety of content from movement to movement. (Shows the advantage of being willing to listen to new music.) The pianist, Ingolf Wunder, a young Austrian, was outstanding. He drew applause that led to his performing a Chopin piece as an encore.






The second half of the concert was comprised of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47. I have posted about the Shostakovich fifth before.

To hear it or any favorite work live is a revelation. With my great seating, I was able to “see” the entrances of the different players and sections of the orchestra — the two flutes (especially important in this work); the trumpets, trombones, and bassoons; the timpani and cymbals; and, yes, the two harps – occurring. One sees as well as hears them (as one might not on a rerecording, not being quite sure what instrument one is hearing).

Shostakovich, it is well known and has been frequently noted, was a master of tone color. This is fully recognizable in a live performance.

And, the way the instruments play off one another is brilliant. I had a similar feeling while watching a performance of a Mozart symphony recently. (I forget if it was Mozart’s 40th or the Jupiter Symphony.)

Shostakovich is a master of the ironic, the sardonic, and the unexpected. Not adverse to clashing sounds and dissonance (along with beautiful, elegiac melodies). Sort of reminds one of Stravinsky. But the framework, the overall construction of the piece, is worthy of a Haydn or a Beethoven.

The instruments seem to be having a conversation (notably in the first movement, Moderato), and the piece has an undeniable, irresistible sense of logic and forward movement that never flags. As is invariably true of the greatest symphonies.

I was riveted.







The first movement of Shostakovich’s fifth. Note the interplay and “handoffs” between the instruments. The thematic variations. Note how carefully, and with such artistry, Shostakovich builds an aura and a sense of suspense.



— Roger W. Smith

   December 2018





See also my post:


Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 in D minor; Шостакович, Симфония № 5 ре минор

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony


Shortly after his return to Russia from the first international tour Tchaikovsky set to work on his Fifth Symphony, in E minor. It was written in about two months, during the summer of 1888. For some time the composer had been brooding over the possibility that his inspiration had dried up and that it was time for him to quit. He worked hard on his symphony to prove to himself that his own fears were groundless. The first performance of the work left him more despondent than ever. When he conducted it in St. Petersburg later that year, and in Prague, it fell flat. ‘It is a failure,’ he wrote to his confidante. ‘There is something repellent in it, some over-exaggerated idea of colour, some insincerity or fabrication which the public instinctively recognizes.’ He went on to say that his Fourth Symphony was a far better work.

It is interesting to note after many years how much of the composer’s estimate of the Fifth Symphony fell wide of the mark and how much was damningly true. The work certainly was not a failure. It became one of the most popular symphonies ever written, one of the established showpieces of every orchestra’s repertoire, and a bulwark of Tchaikovsky’s hold on the affections of the music public. It has been played until every shred of novelty is worn away, the seams show, and the dramatic surprises are gone. Every critic knows how right the composer was when he spoke of over-exaggeration, insincerity, fabrication—even the ‘something repellent’. Nevertheless the Fifth Symphony is beloved wherever orchestras foregather the world over.

The work is another laboratory specimen of the composer’s mature style–which means a mixture of his virtues and faults in unexplainable juxtaposition. It has lyric richness almost to excess; it has brilliance, variety of mood, tremendous passion. It has also the composer’s characteristic melancholia, his mood of desperate sadness. There is an orchestration of clarity, colour, and resounding power; and finally, like pieces of glass set in a diadem, there are some classic examples of bad taste.

The symphony makes a good beginning, as Tchaikovsky so often does in his first movements. This one may be a patchwork of themes instead of a logical piece of sonata construction, but has melodic interest, well sustained. The motto theme with which the work begins is radically different from the Fatum of the Fourth Symphony, being not a brassy fanfare but a soft, gloomily intoned melody for the clarinet. It runs through the entire symphony in various guises, becoming in the last movement the main declamation point of the entire work. Its use is so strongly stressed as to suggest some concrete idea behind the composer’s inspiration. Tchaikovsky never admitted the existence of such a programme, as he did in the case of the Fourth Symphony, but many commentators have supplied their own. It seems doubtful if one really existed. This phase of Tchai­kovsky’s music is apt to be confusing. He was obviously impressed with the tone-poem, programme-symphony idea, which permeated the music of the romantic era. It ruled so much of his thinking that even his most abstract works often sound as if they had a programmatic basis. His melodies, helped by his dramatic type of construction, often seem to be telling some story; it is one of their strongest characteristics. But most of the time the composer was simply imitating the tone-poem style, not actually carrying it out.

The second movement of the Fifth Symphony presents another celebrated Tchaikovsky melody. It is given at first to the solo horn and is later entwined with an obbligato by the oboe. The movement is remindful of a Chopin nocturne, extended and intensified with all the swelling passions and colours of the great orchestra. It misses being one of the supreme nocturnes, for its chief blemish is two convulsive interruptions by the motto theme that are noisy and tasteless. Chopin made use of such breaks in the mood of his later nocturnes, but he did it with a distinction of craftsmanship and idea which was denied Tchaikovsky.

The third movement is marked Waltz, and for this the composer has been doubly damned. The purists have said that a waltz has no place whatever in a symphony, and anyway this is not a real waltz at all. They may be right on both counts, but not many listeners would sacrifice this particular movement. It is unpreten­tious, melodious, and charming; and it serves to relieve the emo­tional tension of the surrounding movements.

It is hard to forgive Tchaikovsky for the last movement of the Fifth Symphony [italics added]. His purpose was to end his symphony with a resounding, triumphal finale; his method in part was to take the gloomy motto theme, turn it from minor to major, and proclaim it to the skies. It so happens that this is one of the hardest tests to which a composer may subject a theme–to have it sung fortissimo by the brass. Better themes than Tchaikovsky’s have failed under this ordeal. Here the result is lamentable. The tune takes on neither dignity nor beauty only the banal trumpery of an operatic march by Meyerbeer [italics added].


— Richard Anthony Leonard, The Stream of Music






“[The second movement’s] chief blemish is two convulsive interruptions by the motto theme that are noisy and tasteless. Chopin made use of such breaks in the mood of his later nocturnes, but he did it with a distinction of craftsmanship and idea which was denied Tchaikovsky.”





the fourth movement







It is hard to forgive Richard Anthony Leonard for such atrocious criticism.

The taste of the public, it has often been said, has always been, and will always be, abysmally low. But, a literary critic should be careful when savaging such universally beloved and esteemed works as Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Les Misérables, or Great Expectations; or a pompous music critic the works of one of the greatest composers.





On November 8 2018, I attended a performance at Carnegie Hall by the West-East Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor Op. 64. The symphony is comprised of four movements: Andante–Allegro con anima, Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza, Valse: Allegro moderato, Finale: Andante maestroso–Allegro vivace.

I believe Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was the first symphony I got to know in its entirety. It was the first symphony I ever purchased, on an LP when I was a teenager.

The above quote is from a popular book by the British music historian and critic Richard Anthony Leonard that is now out of print. It was used in a course, Introduction to Music, which I took at Brandeis University in my sophomore year.

I was dismayed and almost felt wronged when I read Leonard’s comments on the Fifth, in my college survey text (Leonard’s book). I thought for a moment: Could I be wrong about Tchaikovsky? Could it be that I was snowed, fooled by Tchaikovsky’s “schlocky” music? No, I thought, I don’t, can’t agree.





On October 27 at Carnegie Hall, I saw a performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, opus 70. It was a work hitherto unknown to me.

The program notes contained the following comment:

Dvořák’s Seventh is generally ranked as the greatest of the composer’s nine symphonies. This assessment is voiced in spite of the work not being as ingratiating as the Eighth Symphony or as dramatic as the ever-popular Ninth, “From the New World.” Sir Donald Francis Tovey set the Seventh alongside the C-Major Symphony of Schubert and the four symphonies of Brahms as “among the greatest and purest examples of this art form since Beethoven.”

I am not prepared to say this about Dvořák’s Seventh. But, the comment got me to thinking: what are the greatest symphonies of all time?

Well, Tovey identifies most of them: Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms.

What about Mozart?

My personal ranking:

All nine Beethoven symphonies. You can’t really choose among them.

Mozart’s last three symphonies and his Symphony No. 36 (“Linz”). The “Linz’ and Mozart’s’ Symphony No. 40 are personal favorites of mine.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C-Major. Incidentally, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is haunting, but it odes not, in my opinion, rank with the others listed above by me and is not the equal of Schubert’s Ninth.

Brahms’s first and fourth symphonies. These are his two greatest, I feel. The First is a personal favorite of mine, but the Fourth is equally great.

Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony.

Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. I am convinced that it ranks with the others, and is the only modern symphony about which I am prepared to say this.

In all of the above works, what I find is brilliance of conception, structure, and musical architecture and unwavering emotional power. So that each work feels like an organic whole and never flags.

Well, almost never. The third movement — Valse: Allegro moderato — of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is comprised of a beautiful waltz worthy of Tchaikovsky, and yet I find my interest and sense of inevitability in the music flagging a bit at that point.
— Roger W. Smith

   November 2018



On October 25, 2018, I attended a performance at Carnegie Hall by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and soloists and choir of Haydn’s “Nelson Mass” and Mozart’s Requiem.

The “Nelson Mass.” Stupendous. To hear it live is a revelation. Here is the “Kyrie” (the opening section).



I was struck by something when listening to the “Lacrimosa” section of Mozart’s Requiem. The doleful stress of the strings, which beautifully convey tears: the concept of weeping.



It remined me of something: Vivaldi’s magnificent Stabat Mater. The strings in the “Eja mater” section.



I looked up some musical terms used for performance directions. The strings are playing agitato: agitated or restless. Agitato is a direction to play in an agitated manner.

Was Mozart somehow influenced by Vivaldi? No. Just a coincidence.

Did he know Vivaldi or his music? Doesn’t seem that likely.

Mozart did know Bach personally and admired his music. Bach, as is well known, was an admirer of Vivaldi.



— Roger W. Smith

   November 2018




re the development of musical appreciation, as seen in myself



I am afraid some people will see this post as boastful. It is not intended to be.






I have a good friend whom I share with my wife. He was a former teaching colleague of hers.

He reads all my posts — I am very happy to have him as a regular reader. He tends to admire my writings, which is very welcome, although if he disagrees with something (such as an opinion of mine about an author), he will tell me or my wife. He is a thoughtful person and reads with care and attention. But his criticisms are not harsh.

He has mentioned several times to both of us having enjoyed my writings and thoughts on classical music. He is an accomplished and serious pianist and a lover of music, about which he is knowledgeable.

I said I was glad that he enjoyed my posts about music. “You know,” I said, “with my limited technical knowledge of music, I am surprised to find I can write about it. But it seems I can.”

He said something in response to the effect that my writings on music read like those of a music critic.

Thinking more about this, I wrote my friend a follow up email, the text of which follows.



— Roger W. Smith

   August 2018





Dear _______,

Yesterday we were talking about early influences, namely music and art.

I seem to be able to “think musically.”

Even though I can’t read music or play an instrument.

How is it that I know (or think I do) that Bartók outranks Stravinsky? How and why is it that when I was listening once to folksongs by Bartók, I was reminded of Porgy and Bess? And, then (this was in the past), I happened to read something about Gershwin somewhere and found out that he had used pentatonic scales in Porgy and Bess and realized that Bartók did the same with folksongs that used ancient modalities.

As I said, I seem to have always been able to think musically. My father graduated from Harvard when I was around four or five with a degree in music. I don’t recall it well, but he had 78 RPM records of classical music that he would play when doing assignments. I recall that I loved the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 — if one can do that at a very early age, one is inherently musical. I enjoyed listening to my mother play classical music on the piano around bedtime. I liked some other works I recall such as Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. Plus kids’ songs such as “Rain, Rain, Go Away (Come Back Again Some Other Day).” I still remember the words and the basic tune. We had a scratchy old record of it which I wanted to hear over and over again.

I seem to have a photographic memory for music. I always recall what the pieces were and remember them exactly, going way back and extending through my lifetime. If I hear a different rendition at some later date, I can tell it’s not the same. (This includes popular music and rock.) How is it that I remember both the music and the actual pieces, including what they were?

For example, on the first day of school I attended in the seventh grade in my new hometown, Canton, our teacher, Mrs. Sullivan, led us from the piano in singing. The songs were “Over the River and Through the Woods, To Grandmother’s House We Go. The horse knows the way, to carry the sleigh”; and, “Oh, Those Golden Slippers.” I can hear the songs still. I can hear Mrs. Sullivan playing — can seem to almost remember how that old piano sounded —  remember what the songs were and the melodies.

Music is linear, like mathematics. I think linearly. I always did very well in math. Music and subjects like algebra are left brained.

I never had to develop an interest in music, like, say, someone who says, or thinks, they should take up tennis or golf for some reason, and begins by taking lessons.

It was similar to my love of books and reading in that it was never an interest that was part of academics or coursework. The best interests develop naturally this way.

So that when I was in high school, I began to seriously develop a taste for and knowledge of classical music. It came naturally.

But when it comes to playing and performing, I could never, should I have tried, come close to my siblings’ proficiency.

A footnote: My former therapist, Dr. Colp’s, intellectual development seemed similar, in some respects. He grew up in a very intellectually stimulating atmosphere of books and ideas. He told me that the life of the mind was like breathing for him.

I was very fortunate to have grown up in a home were music was a part of everyday life and where aesthetic enrichment and appreciation came with the territory. Music has always been an important part of my life.



Beethoven; nature


I was listening to the fifth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastorale) conducted by Simon Rattle:



“Hirtengesänge – Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm” (Shepherds’ song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm).

Great rendition.

It made me think of music celebrating the countryside. Earlier writers and composers knew it, knew nature, in a way we no longer do.







Beethoven was a student of Haydn’s and was influenced by him. Below is a movement from the first part (Spring) of Haydn’s oratorio Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons).




Nr. 2 – Chor des Landvolks



Komm, holder Lenz,
Des Himmels Gabe, komm!
Aus ihrem Todesschlaf
Erwecke die Natur!


Er nahet sich, der holde Lenz;
Schon fühlen wir den linden Hauch, Bald lebet alles wieder auf.


Frohlocket ja nicht allzufrüh!
Oft schleicht, in Nebel eingehüllt,
Der Winter wohl zurück und streut Auf Blüt’ und Keim sein starres Gift.


Komm, holder Lenz,
Des Himmels Gabe komm!
Auf unsere Fluren senke dich, Komm, holder Lenz, o komm!
Und weile länger nicht!


2. Chorus

Come, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness come!
Out of her wintry grave bid drowsy nature rise.
At last the pleasing Spring is near; the softening air is full of balm.
A boundless song bursts from the groves.
As yet the year is unconfirmed, and Winter oft at eve resumes the breeze,
and bids his driving sleets deform the day and chill the morn.
Come, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness come!
and smiling on our plains descend, while music wakes around.


On January 24 of this year, I saw a performance of Die Jahreszeiten by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Franz Wesler-Möst, at Carnegie Hall. It was an incredible experience for me and a revelation to see the work performed live, with me holding the libretto in my hands and following the words.






book cover - Thomson, 'The Seasons'.jpg



The libretto is based on a long poem by the English poet and playwright James Thomson (1700-1748): The Seasons. With some difficultly, I was able to find and purchase a copy of this book length poem, which I am reading by fits and starts. It’s quite good. It conveys a sense, with Miltonic scope (Thomson’s work has echoes of the cadences of Paradise Lost), of the essence of the countryside in all its various guises and in its plenitude — the rhythms of work and daily life as the seasons change — and how they were experienced by people at the time, which is to say before the Industrial Revolution. Haydn captured this brilliantly. The libretto of Haydn’s oratorio was written by Gottfried van Swieten, who adapted Thomson’s poem for the oratorio. (van Swieten was closely associated with Mozart. He introduced both Mozart and Haydn to Handel.)


COME, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness, come;
And from the bosom of yon dropping cloud,
While music wakes around, veiled in a shower
Of shadowing roses, on our plains descend. …

And see where surly Winter passes off
Far to the north, and calls his ruffian blasts:
His blasts obey, and quit the howling hill,
The shattered forest, and the ravaged vale;
While softer gales succeed, at whose kind touch,
Dissolving snows in livid torrents lost,
The mountains lift their green heads to the sky. …

White through the neighbouring fields the sower stalks
With measured step, and liberal throws the grain
Into the faithful bosom of the ground:
The harrow follows harsh, and shuts the scene.

— James Thomson, The Seasons, “Spring”





A few days after the concert, I wrote in an email to a relative of mine:

In “The Creation,” you feel you are experiencing nature and the countryside as people did in 1800. You’re right there: a farmer plowing a field, dawn, a loaded cart with produce from the harvest, lovers under a tree (and the male throwing a chestnut when climbing it at the unsuspecting girl he admires as a joke), a thunderstorm, a hunt for hares, etc. Haydn is totally unpretentious, he can be funny, and the music perfectly fits the text.

Haydn is the consummate composer. He never overreaches. The music is unpretentious, yet he is a master of form.

The program notes for the performance note: “fresh feeling of innovation” … “[we] are never overpowered by the orchestrations” … “balances expression with refinement.” All of this is very true.






page from score of Haydn's 'The Seasons'.jpg



Here is a page from Haydn’s score for the appropriate part of Die Jahreszeiten. The score, which I purchased in book form after the concert, is 309 pages long. It kind of shows graphically — for the uninitiated such as myself — what effort must be involved in composing a musical work of this magnitude.





And, while we are talking about nature (as experienced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), the following is a favorite Keats poem of mine. It came alive for me when I heard it out loud. I wish I could find a good recording to share.



To Autumn

By John Keats


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.



— Roger W. Smith

   June 2018










I found a great recorded reading of Keats’s poem “To Autumn.” The reading is by Frederick Davidson. I know of no better audiobook reader.

The reading is on a CD and I can’t post it individually. The CD track is about ten minutes long. The poem “To Autumn” starts at a point 3:42 minutes into the track.


“The Seasons,” Tchaikovsky; a piano concert … Roger’s musings









I attended a concert by Bulgarian pianist Maria Prinz at Carnegie Hall last evening. It consisted of:

Tchaikovsky, The Seasons, op. 37a

Prokofiev, Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, op. 75

I had third row center seats. I felt keenly aware of what a difference it makes to hear a piece live. Somehow this seems especially true — or at least very applicable — with the piano. The sonorities of same. The percussive effect. And so on. I wish I could comment more knowledgeably and articulately — I am neither a pianist nor an expert.

A typically great New York audience. The hall was almost full on a weekday evening. Everyone totally into the music. No one claps inappropriately between individual pieces.

You would never see such a performance being given in a concert hall anywhere else in the USA.




IMG_5880 (3)




IMG_5885 (2)






The twelve pieces that make up Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons are so evocative of the words, so descriptive and expressive. I wish more Tchaikovsky pieces “in miniature,” so to speak, could be heard. These ones are gems.

May I suggest, if you are in the mood, that you try Tchaikovsky’s a cappella choral pieces (settings of texts by Pushkin, Lermontov, Tsiganov, Ogarev; the composer, Tchaikovsky; and others), a beautiful LP record of which is posted on this site at


The Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet pieces are brilliant and captivating. Yet they leave me sort of cold: In other words, while I was impressed and intrigued by the arresting rhythms and melodies, they left me at bottom unsatisfied, speaking as a listener.

Ms. Prinz plays with great conviction and mastery, yet there is no showmanship. It is the music that matters and the music which comes through.






A Digression


In a previous post of mine, “last night’s concert”


I wrote:

It’s okay for the mind to wander even with … great music because music both fixes the attention and engages you … while, at the same time, stirring up thought in all directions and energizing the mind, so that at one moment I am totally focused on “musical ideas” and my mind seems fused with the piece, its “inner logic,” and then, seconds later, I am thinking … of [something else which] there was no particular reason for me to associate with the piece.

I was also thinking about the concept of “unconflicted interest,” a term used by former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr., MD. Having and experiencing this type or level of engagement, so to speak, with something such as an area of study or a cultural or learning experience can revive one from dullness or apathy. I was tired at the end of a long day in the City which began with a dentist’s appointment. The concert revived me.





It is notable (and does not need commenting upon) how music stirs the listener up: the notes and harmonies; the crescendos; the forward momentum. One’s thoughts are also stirred up.

The mind wanders into bypaths, entertaining thoughts both commonplace and (perhaps) profound, and calling up a train of associations.

For example: I was thinking, as often occurs to me when I have the opportunity to experience Russian music or literature, of how glad I am that I learned Russian (though I never mastered it).

I did it because I wanted to. (Motivation is everything.) Yet I almost failed on the first try. I took Russian again at Columbia, which had an excellent Russian department, and succeeded on the second try.

This shows the importance of having an instructor/teacher, or a mentor or coach, who doesn’t underestimate or give up on oneself. Or perhaps the converse, your sticking with the pursuit of a goal.

Then, with the Prokofiev, I thought about Shakespeare. Leading to a digression — I guess one would say, another one — a digression upon a digression.

In Romeo and Juliet, there are robust young males: Romeo’s friend Mercutio, for example; and his cousin and best friend Benvolio. And, in Hamlet, Hamlet’s friend Horatio. Our high school English teacher, Mr. _______, used to say that Horatio was the quintessential true blue friend and good guy.

My mind wandered into another byway: a thicket comprised of thoughts about the teacher and my relationship with him, and a recent exchange I had by email with my brother.





I told my brother that I felt our English teacher — who was one of the best teachers in the school and was respected if not revered, because of his intellect and mastery of the subject matter (he was not “dictatorial,” but he was a teacher whose teaching you did not take lightly) — favored him. Favored my brother, that is. Was partial to him. And, couldn’t help showing it.

I always felt inhibited in his classroom (though I learned so much, as much as I ever did in any other school or class). I worked very hard, and the teacher respected my intellect and writing ability. But he would sometimes give me lower grades than I deserved, it seemed. This did not bother me that much — I was not grade conscious and would never complain — but I sometimes felt that he was hard on me. Though not always. He once gave me an A plus on a paper. My grades in his class kept getting better each term. He praised my writing highly at least once and appreciated my contributions to class discussions.

But he became lifelong friends with my brother. He once told my mother, at a parent-teacher night (she told me what he said), that my brother and I were completely different personality-wise. I didn’t know what this meant. And, something I noticed was that sometimes the teacher out of the blue would show irritation with me or pick on or make fun of me for no reason.

After years of wondering, I think I know. The mystery of why our English teacher never quite took to me as a person seems to be cleared up (in my mind).

Sometimes he (the teacher) would make an offhand remark and I would sort of tense up. This was because I feared him (as an authority figure, among other things) and found it hard to relax in his presence. It seemed (or seems to me, in retrospect) that the teacher was annoyed because I was not quite in step with him and didn’t get his jokes or witticisms, or couldn’t get into it with him. Some of the jokes were at my expense. At other times, I knew quite well what he was saying, but I felt stiff and self-conscious nevertheless and found it hard to relax and be convivial.

I emailed my brother just recently:

Mr. _______ thought that, as well as you being a good student whom he had great success with, you were a REGULAR GUY. And I was not (in his view). I think Mr. ______ could be petty, narrow minded, and judgmental about people. And cruel about what he perceived to be obvious weakness. He underestimated me, though he did give me credit for intellectual ability.

He acknowledged that I was intelligent. He underestimated me totally as a person.

He saw me as a sort of shallow cipher. Like a character, Robert Shallow in Henry IV, Part 2. Whereas you were a Prince Hal or like Hamlet’s friend Horatio.

You did not experience this. I did.

My brother was not sympathetic. “I think you obsess too much about former teachers,” he wrote back. “If he gave you credit for intelligence, of which you have plenty, what did he underestimate?”

My brother missed the point.





Some people think I tend to obsess over the past and ruminate too much on past events, slights, and abuses (as I perceive them). What I think occurs with thoughtful, sentient persons — and I believe it is a healthy thing; or at least a sign of intellect, of reflection (my former therapist said, “The life of the mind. It’s like breathing.”) — is that their mind never stops churning over the past and reinterpreting it, or interpreting it anew, never stops making new “discoveries” about oneself and others, including the long departed. Something will occur that induces the mind to recall something long buried in the consciousness, and, then, by analogy, the mind makes a connection; and, often, a clarification, a new “discovery.” It’s akin to what presumably occurs, optimally, in therapy or when a writer creates a work of fiction based on his or her own experience.

A further thought: People’s judgments of others can be superficial, not well founded, and hurtful if not cruel. My English teacher thought I was an uptight, rigid sort of person, an earnest student but not quite a regular guy. Not the type you would want to have a beer with. This was wrong. We write off people with such superficial judgments. We often do them a disservice. It often seems that this happens in the workplace or at school or in some such setting where people form quick judgments when encountering you in a larger group and deciding whom they would like to be friends with or get to know.

Often such judgments are superficial and misleading. A girlfriend of one of my college roommates once told a group of their friends in a bull session that she found me to be a sort of cold fish who never showed any feeling. One of my roommates, John Ferris (who later became a psychiatrist and is still in practice), responded angrily to her. (He recounted the conversation to me shortly afterwards.) He told her: “You are absolutely wrong. Roger is a very demonstrative person.” My roommate’s clueless girlfriend took modesty and reserve on my part for lack of any emotional awareness.



— posted by Roger W. Smith

   June 1, 2018






Addendum: Here is one of Beethoven’s variations on a setting of an Irish folksong, “The last rose of summer,” by George Thomson. It is performed in an arrangement for flute and piano by Ms. Prinz and the flautist Patrick Gallois.







Addendum: See my post of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons at:

last night’s concert




Carnegie Hall


5-4-2018 program.jpg




I attended a concert yesterday evening at Carnegie Hall.

The program consisted of:

Rossini, “William Tell Overture” (1829)

Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 19 (1916-1917)

Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica” (1803)

performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mariss Jansons, with Frank Peter Zimmermann the violin soloist.





The “Eroica” was the high point of the program for me.

Though the performance of the “William Tell Overture” demonstrated how great it can be to hear such a war horse performed live and in its entirety.

Why do Beethoven’s works — e.g., the “Eroica,” which is, has been played repeatedly, innumerable times (it would be pointless to try and enumerate how many times) — continue to sound fresh?

There is almost no such thing as an inferior Beethoven work, meaning inferior to the rest of his oeuvre (with perhaps one or two exceptions).

All nine symphonies are unique and can “hold their own,” so to speak, each of them, with respect to the other eight.

The “Eroica” draws the listener in and transfixes you from the very first bar.

Beethoven wrote some of the most complex music imaginable in terms of structural depth and layers of meaning. Yet the listener never feels “lost” or adrift. Beethoven is admirably clear. Like all great artists, he has done the work, so that the listener (this is also true of literature) is made one with the piece; a fusion occurs between the artist’s intent, his subconscious, and what the listener or reader grasps, understands, takes in, experiences. The imagination is stimulated, the mind is stretched and energized, but made more rather than less whole. One experiences a sense of completion and wholeness rather than confusion/disorientation leading to frustration.





A final thought (which I have expressed before).

It’s okay for the mind to wander even with such great music because music both fixes the attention and engages you (and provides a relief by so doing) while, at the same time, stirring up thought in all directions and energizing the mind, so that at one moment I am totally focused on “musical ideas” and my mind seems fused with the piece, its “inner logic,” and then, seconds later, I am thinking, as happened as I was listening to the “Eroica,” of a dear departed friend whom there was no particular reason for me to associate with the piece.




— Roger W. Smith

   May 5, 2018









There is a famous passage in Act 5, Scene 3 of King Lear, where Lear is holding his daughter, the dead Cordelia, in his arms. He says:

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.

The repetition of the words “howl” and “dead” was remarked upon by my professor at Brandeis University, Aileen Ward, with whom I took a course on Shakespeare’s plays in my freshman year. She made an allusion to the repeated crashing chords in the first movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony.

Professor Ward was a great teacher and critic/lover of literature and, from what I could observe, a beautiful, gracious person. I did not fully appreciate the wonderful teachers I had in college.