Tag Archives: Elinor Handy

Schubert (specifically, his last sonata), Mitsuko Uchida, and my mother

 

 

Schubert piano sonata in B-flat Minor, D. 960

his last piano sonata

not published

he died two months later

 

 

Mitsuko Uchida

flawless performance at Carnegie Hall on May 4, 2019

 

 

I have criticized her (perhaps unfairly) with reference to Schubert performances.

I saw her a couple of times performing at Carnegie Hall within the past year. A Schubert performance last year left me feeling lukewarm about her, despite the fact that the audience — she has a following — loves her.

But I shouldn’t jump to conclusions or “give up” on her too easily, I thought. It may be that I have been lacking in discernment and, consequently, appreciation for her playing.

She certainly confounded my expectations, and my prior less-than-enthusiastic opinions, on Saturday evening.

I realize that the three last Schubert piano sonatas are all great, just about equally. I have had a sentimental preference for the next to last sonata, D. 959. But I fully felt and experienced the greatness of the sonata D. 960 tonight. Mitsuko Uchida made me feel that.

And, I realized, as an auditor, why she is regarded, probably, as the foremost Schubert interpreter of our time.

So, from her hands, I heard Schubert and felt what makes his music unique and special. And so lyrical in a deeply affecting way. Note I said lyrical, by which I don’t mean to neglect what I would call complexity yoked to powerful, direct expression — a quality preeminent, unmistakably so, in Beethoven. It’s not quite the same thing, but — as to what makes Schubert great – in the program notes from last night’s concert, reference is made to Schubert’s “seemingly bottomless stockpile of melody, his ability to invest the simplest of musical phrases with dramatic significance.” (italics added)

Schubert sounds like no one else. His sound — if I were a musicologist, I could probably elucidate the distinguishing features; chords, for example (the program notes refer to “quicksilver changes of keys and moods”) — is sui generis. He is almost immediately recognizable. Perhaps this is a truism that applies to practically all great artists: the Handel of Messiah and Samson; the Haydn of the masses and The Seven Last Words of Christ; the Mozart of the Ave verum corpus and Masonic Funeral Music … the Melville of Moby-Dick; the Tolstoy of War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection; the Joyce of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

But– I’ll say it– I prefer Schubert to Chopin (with respect to the former’s compositions for piano).

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

What is it about Schubert?

I would say that he is incredibly self-contained — his music is sufficient unto itself. By which I mean that his music holds, fulfills, and enraptures the listener without anything in it that was intended necessarily to impress or astonish. The music seems to bubble up like a spring. There is nothing imitative or referential. No other composer could write such music. There is was only one Schubert. Self-evident? Yes, admittedly. But I got to thinking about this at the concert, and my mind wandered without my losing focus on the music. (This has happened to me at other concerts, as I have noted in previous blogs.)
How could I express these feelings or opinions of mine about Schubert? In my mind, I strained to think of a way to put or couch it. I thought of my mother. Yes, my mother.

My mother was a remarkable person. People almost always seemed to notice her special personal qualities, and to speak about them. There was something “self-contained” about her too. The good things were just there, inherent, unchanging; sort of wafted out of her; were effused into the atmosphere, so to speak, to those around her. The good things, the remarkable things — her particular way of seeing things and relating to people and her milieu — seemed to have always been part of her.

She wasn’t trying to impress others (though she was self-conscious, naturally, about the impression she made and eager to be thought well of). She was, to the extent she was admired for her good qualities, just that way. One felt that one would never meet such a person ever again, which is not to say that she was a perfect person or deserved veneration. It’s just that what was good about her was constant; distinctive in her; treasured and consistently welcome for the sense of emotional satisfaction that came from being privileged to be related to or know her. By which I don’t mean that she was like a therapist, healer, or do-gooder (though she was kind and thoughtful), she was someone whom people wanted to know and associate with because of who she was.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

Like Schubert? Meaning one wants to listen to him. Not because one should (because someone told you you must, because of his musical standing or stature as a composer). Not because he is the best composer in this or that medium, or was important as a composer in the transition from classicism to romanticism. But because he’s Schubert . And, with my mother, people wanted to know and talk with Elinor.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 6. 2019

 

 

 

IMG_4547 (2)

my mother and I in Danvers, Massachusetts

 

 

May 6, 2019

some of my best friends …

 

 

 

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“Don’t cry over spilt milk.”

“A watched pot never boils.”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

“A stitch in time saves nine.”

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

 

AND

“Some of my best friends …”

 

 

*****************************************************

 

I grew up with these sayings, all of them except the last one.

These commonplaces are not indicators of stupidity or poverty of thought. There is much wisdom in them. Many of them were used by my mother.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

What about some of my best friends …?

First of all, it’s not an adage. It’s a cliché.

In the online Urban Dictionary, some of my best friends are … is defined as follows:

Something prejudiced people say when they’re called out on their prejudice. Smacks of tokenism and hypocrisy.

Person A: You can’t trust those goddamn crackers.

Person B: Don’t be prejudiced against white people.

Person A: Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are crackers.

It’s an oft ridiculed line, perhaps justly so.

But I would be inclined to take — at least in my own case (from which I would be inclined to generalize) — a contrarian view.

I would not be inclined to trot out the phrase. But, like the adages I quoted above, the phrase seems to contain some truth in it as a reflection of the actual experience of many people.

Which is to say.

Everyone has prejudices; no one is perfect. One can still hold — buried within oneself — prejudices toward certain racial, ethnic, or religious groups. Anyone who is honest about human nature will admit that they are hard to overcome.

It is true in my case, though people would not call me prejudiced or racist.

What I have found is that if one is honest about self-examination and introspective, one can find prejudices that one harbors. That’s where one might find oneself having a “some of my best friends” experience, though, in my case, I would be embarrassed to use the term; not inclined to do so for fear of being ridiculed.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

You may have limited experience of certain religious or ethnic groups. I did. I grew up in New England. Practically everyone was Christian, Protestant or Catholic; there was one black student, as I recall, in my high school; I had one Jewish friend (not a close friend); and I probably did not even know what the term Hispanic meant, having never met as I recall someone whose ethnicity was so designated.

I live in New York City now. I went to a liberal college with a majority of Jewish students. I have experienced ethnic diversity in the workplace and my adopted city.

Still, I harbor prejudices. And, my experience of some religious and ethnic groups has been limited.

But then you or I meet someone from one of these groups and the two of you have immediate rapport. The buried prejudices, old thoughts that you never quite dealt with, don’t matter. Experience for the moment has trumped old animosities, fears, resentments buried within you and directed toward an amorphous group, not toward individuals.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

A final thought. It doesn’t involve friendships, but it seems pertinent.

I love the ethnic diversity of New York City: the mixture of races and creeds and of the native and foreign born.

I often experience positive interactions with strangers. I can’t get over how helpful and nice people are in this big, supposedly impersonal city, where everyone is supposed to have little time for one another.

I try to — and in fact do — respond in kind.

These positive experiences — most often with people who are not of the same race, class, religious or national origins, and so forth — are incredibly edifying. And, what’s most significant, from the point of view of this post, is that they trump any need to address prejudice issues on an abstract level.

Abstractions become irrelevant. It’s the personal interaction in the here and now that matters, and one experiences a wonderful feeling of common humanity.

A dimension of actual lived experience I love. Because, as William Blake said: “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer. …”

Translation (or should I say extrapolation): You will never be able to overcome prejudice in the abstract; you will — society will, can — on the individual and personal level.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

 

the effervescent (sometimes typographically challenged) pedant

 

 

I am blessed to come from a family that is very verbal, that delights in oral and written exchanges and expression and in word play. It seems as if they always put things just right, and often they amuse or provide a pleasant surprise with verbal ingenuity.

When I was in college, my brother and his wife gave me a book as a Christmas gift: Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Oxford History of the American People. On the flyleaf, my brother wrote an inscription: “To the effervescent pedant / With love”

I thought of this because of an email exchange I had with my brother this morning.

In the email to my brother, I quoted from my post

 

“her” instead of “him”; Ms.; and what else?

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/12/20/her-instead-of-him-ms-and-what-else/

 

as follows: “The PC types are all for conversation (of the wilderness and the natural environment). Why do they want to tear asunder our language? Like nature, it should be conserved, which does mean embalmed or ossified.”

 

and, in the email, said:

See any problem with this?

The PC crowd does tend to be loquacious.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

My brother responded as follows:

Cute typo.

Reminds me when you confused “martial relations” with “marital relations,” an apt malaprop that sent Mom into gales of laughter — loving laughter because in part she was enjoying your early advanced vocabulary.

 

*****************************************************

 

I wrote back:

All very true, Pete.

Aptly described.

Your memory is impressive.

I had forgotten how I used to get “martial” and “marital” mixed up.

Sometimes, I would make words up, which amused Mom … I used to say, “It’s just the INTRACITIES of life.”

Once I wrote Mom a letter using several big words I had just learned. I said that if she had no objection, I would DESCANT upon a few things. (To descant means to talk tediously or at length.)

She wrote back a letter beginning with, “So, cant me no descants.” She loved word play.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

This was brilliant usage by my mother. The intransitive verb cant (the meaning of which I did not know) is defined thusly:

1: to talk or beg in a whining or singsong manner

2: to speak in cant or jargon

3: to talk hypocritically

I’m trying to remember in which work of literature I first encountered the word descant.  I usually don’t forget such things.

It will come to me.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 22, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mrs Miniver

 

 

I recently saw the American film (which I had always assumed, mistakenly, was English) Mrs Miniver (1942) on television. I have seen it many times.

The film, as described in a Wikipedia entry, “shows how the life of an unassuming British housewife in rural England is touched by World War II.”

Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) and her family live a comfortable life at a house called “Starlings” in Belham, a fictional village outside London. The house has a large garden, with a private landing stage on the River Thames at which is moored a motorboat belonging to her devoted husband, Clem (Walter Pidgeon), a successful architect.

As World War II looms, their son Vin (the oldest of three children) returns from the university. As the war comes closer to home, Vin feels he must “do his bit” and enlists in the Royal Air Force, qualifying as a fighter pilot.

Together with other boat owners, Clem Miniver (Walter Pigeon) volunteers to take his motorboat, the Starling, to assist in the Dunkirk evacuation.

Early one morning, Kay, unable to sleep as Clem is still away, wanders down to the landing stage. She is startled to discover a wounded German pilot hiding in her garden, and he takes her to the house at gunpoint. Demanding food and a coat, the pilot aggressively asserts that the Third Reich will mercilessly overcome its enemies. She feeds him, calmly disarms him when he collapses, and then calls the police.

Soon after, Clem returns home, exhausted, from Dunkirk.

Later, Kay Miniver and her family take refuge in a shelter during an air raid, and attempt to keep their minds off the frightening bombing by reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which Clem refers to as a “lovely story” as they barely survive as a bomb destroys parts of the house. They take the damage with nonchalance.

At the end of the film, villagers assemble at the badly damaged church where their vicar affirms their determination in a powerful sermon:

We in this quiet corner of England have suffered the loss of friends very dear to us, some close to this church. … The homes of many of us have been destroyed, and the lives of young and old have been taken. There’s scarcely a household that hasn’t been struck to the heart. And why? Surely you must have asked yourselves this question? Why in all conscience should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness? Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed?

I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman and child who loves freedom. Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves, and those who come after us, from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down. This is the People’s War. It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it then. Fight it with all that is in us. And may God defend the right.

The members of the congregation rise and stoically sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” while through a gaping hole in the bombed church roof can be seen flight after flight of RAF fighters in the V-for-Victory formation heading out to face the enemy.

Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mrs._Miniver

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

It’s one of my favorite films. I love the slow, deliberate, unfrenetic pace; the feeling of another time; the nostalgia and the pathos. (And the lack of blood and guts seen in films such as Saving Private Ryan, which I hated.)

I can relate to the ethos and the decency of the characters; their values.

Does that make me a retrograde snob? Perhaps it does. Well then, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, I’m an atavistic elitist.

Scenes I love:

When the stationmaster wins first prize at a local fair for his rose and they all sing “for he’s a jolly good fellow!” Warms the soul.

Walter Pigeon with his quiet dignity and his pipe almost perpetually in his mouth.

Greer Garson: so beautiful, the perfect mother. Quiet; caring, understanding and sympathetic; yet no shrinking violet. Reminds me of my own mother in looks and personality.

When Clem Miniver and his fellow boat owners row off, silently, in the stillness of the night, in darkness, to assist in the Dunkirk evacuation. It’s a beautiful scene made effective by silence. Boats being rowed. No engines. Stealing off, as it were.

The Anglican church services. The hymns. Reminds me of hymn singing in church when I was growing up. (When I was simply experiencing the rousing music and was too young to be evaluating it or attempting to deconstruct religion.) “Onward Christian Soldiers,” sung by the congregation in the film, sends shivers up my spine.

The sermons given by the Anglican minister. His words. Eloquent. Beautifully expressed. The last church service shown in the film, at the conclusion, in a church with a roof with a big hole in it from German air raids, concludes (the scene, that is) with Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.”

There is one scene I don’t like: when the German pilot is discovered hiding in the Minivers’s garden. He’s a stock figure, a fanatical Nazi. The scene is contrived.

The film is propagandistic. But, while there is pathos, it is not melodramatic. And, the people ring true. That’s what I like most about it.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2017

 

 

 

unnamed.jpg

my mother

 

 

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

Addendum:

 

“Mrs Miniver: The film that Goebbels feared”

by Fiona Macdonald

bbc.com

9 February 2015

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150209-the-film-that-goebbels-feared

 

 

“We will come. We will bomb your cities.” So bristles a character in the film Mrs Miniver. A German pilot who had been shot down in the chocolate box English village of Belham, he momentarily brings the horrors of World War II to what is largely a domestic drama.

… Adapting the original treatment, [director William] Wyler changed the character of the German pilot from that of a sympathetic victim of war to someone much more aggressive. Thomson tells Gambaccini: “Wyler took it upon himself to toughen that character up in the scripting and the shooting – and in fact he really turns into a Nazi. The story goes that Louis B Mayer… was alarmed when he saw this footage… Wyler is reputed to have said ‘Mr Mayer, do you know what’s going on — this man is a shadow of the nastiness that’s going on there’.”

 

two of my favorite piano sonatas and how important the performer seems to be

 

 

They are as follows:

 

 

Beethoven, piano sonata no. 27, opus 90, second movement (“Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen”; Not too swiftly and conveyed in a singing manner)

 

 

Andrew Rangell

 

Emil Gilels

 

Manon Clément

 

Maurizio Pollini

 

Steven Osborne

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

Schubert, sonata no. 20 in A, D. 959, second movement (Andante)

 

 

Alfred Brendel

 

David Korevaar

 

Gerhard Oppitz

 

Mitsuko Uchida

 

 

*****************************************************

 

My love of these two pieces may partially have to do with the circumstances under which I first heard them.

My mother used play the second movement of the Beethoven sonata. Like many amateur pianists, she had a few favorite pieces she would play all the time that she must have learned from her piano teacher. I would fall asleep listening to her play the second movement of sonata number 27 with great feeling. I didn’t care whether her technique would have been regarded as good or not. (Nor, at that age, would I have thought about this.)

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Schubert, sonata no. 20 in A, no. 959, second movement (Andante)

 

I first heard the Schubert sonata, hitherto unknown to me, in the film Au Hasard Balthashar, directed by Robert Bresson, at the now defunct Elgin Theatre on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. It got me in a visceral sense. Bresson was a master at using music in his films, sparingly yet always effectively. The Andante functions as a leitmotif for the soundtrack.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Beethoven, piano sonata no. 27, opus 90, second movement

 

As far as these renditions of the second and last movement go, I think Emil Gilels plays the movement too fast. I am not sure that’s the right way to put it, but he seems to play without feeling, sort of rushes through the movement and wings it, so to speak. As if he were not heeding Beethoven’s instructions to play it “not too swiftly and conveyed in a singing manner.”

I like Andrew Rangell and Manon Clément’s interpretations. Neither pianist is that well known. I have a preference (I think; it’s hard to make such judgments) for Manon Clément’s rendition. Maybe she’s inferior to the other pianists in technical skill, but she manages to make the piece compelling.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Schubert, sonata no. 20 in A, no. 959, second movement

 

What was Mitsuko Uchida thinking (or intending) when she played the Andante of this sonata? Andante, yes; means at a “walking pace.” She seems to have interpreted Andante as meaning “crawling.” She puts you to sleep. (I am not an expert, but it seems as if she could have played a tad more fortissimo.) She is a renowned interpreter of Mozart, Schubert, and other composers. I have heard some of her Mozart renditions, and they are outstanding.

Note at how much faster a tempo (dramatic, but perhaps it should have been a bit slower) Alfred Brendel commences the andante. And, he plays it much louder. Overall, I think Brendel’s rendition is impressive and does the movement justice.

Overall, of the four versions posted here, I prefer German pianist Gerhard Oppitz’s rendition.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

This brings to mind something true about music from my personal experience. How valid it is, or whether it conforms to others’ experience, I don’t know. As is evinced by the Beethoven, I grew to love it by hearing my mother, an amateur pianist, play it with feeling. And, of all the versions posted here, I think I like Manon Clément’s the best, yet she is the least well known performer. Conclusion, for what it’s worth: the circumstances under which one hears music and the emotional content the performer can convey — through skill but also through performance intangibles, and through the desire to “communicate” musically (rather than just be admired as a performer) — make a great difference.

It’s not that different in writing, something which I know more about. An earnest desire to communicate can go a long way in making a piece of writing succeed. It’s not the only thing — technical skill and knowledge must be there — but a showoff who just wants to impress and does the job with no sense of their real or virtual audience (be it that in playing or writing) will leave listeners and readers feeling unfulfilled.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2017

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Addendum: Igo Pogorelich’s rendition of Sonata no. 27, no. 90 is worth listening to.

 

 

 

my Revolutionary War ancestor

 

 

 

The following is the text of an email of mine to a friend today.

 

— Roger W. Smith, April 18, 2017

 

 

************************************************************

 

 

Scott —

 

My mother’s ancestral link to the Revolutionary War did not go back far.

Her great-great grandfather William Handy was a Revolutionary War soldier.

The line of descent:

Elinor Handy Smith, my mother (1918-1973)

her father Ralph E. Handy (1893-1947)

her grandfather Henry T. Handy (whaler; 1845-1916)

her great-grandfather Joshua Handy (1813-1887)

her great-great grandfather William Handy (1762-1852); the Revolutionary War soldier

All of the above named Handy males, with the exception of my mother’s father, were mariners. They all lived on Cape Cod.

William Handy joined the Continental Army in June 1780, when he was just shy of age 18. He enlisted in Massachusetts. Records indicate that during his service he was in New York state and New Jersey.

Handel’s “Samson”

 

 

Overture

 

 

 

 

ACT THREE, Scene 3

84. Solo and Chorus (“Glorious hero”)

 

 

 

 

 

Israelites
Glorious hero, may thy grave
Peace and honour ever have,
After all thy pains and woes,
Rest etemal, sweet repose!

 

 

ACT ONE, Scene 2

12. Air (“Total eclipse!”)

 

 

 

Samson

Total eclipse! No sun, no moon!
All dark amidst the blaze of noon!
Oh, glorious light! No cheering ray
To glad my eyes with welcome day!
Why thus depriv’d Thy prime decree?
Sun, moon, and stars are dark to me!

 

 

For the complete oratorio, see

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/01/21/handel-samson/

 

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

I have been listening to some music today, mostly Handel, including a bit of “Samson,” an oratorio.

Handel composed “Samson” right after “Messiah.” He wrote “Messiah” in 24 days! He wrote “Samson” in about a month!

The libretto of “Samson” was based on John Milton’s “Samson Agonistes.”

It is my opinion – perhaps a minority one – that “Samson” is just about equal to “Messiah,” if not in fact equal.

It evokes such an emotional response. Raises goose bumps.

Listen to “Glorious Hero,” for example.

My mother majored in Fine Arts at Radcliffe College. She had quite a few art books from her college days that my siblings and I used to peruse.

There was a reproduction of a painting in one of her art books: “Samson and the Philistines” by Carl Heinrich Bloch, which was painted in Rome in 1863. It made such an impression on me. The painting shows Samson, in captivity, grinding grain on a treadmill. I couldn’t stop looking at it.

So did the Biblical story of Samson itself, which I knew from Sunday school.

 

 

— Roger  W. Smith

     May 4, 2016

 

 

 

 

'Samson and the Philistines'.JPG