Music Appreciation


The first movement of Beethoven’s piano sonata no. 29, the Hammerklavier, bears a puzzlingly fast tempo marking, half-note=138. Most pianists play it considerably more slowly, judging that the indicated tempo would test the limits of the player’s technique and the listeners’ comprehension.

Well, most listeners. In Fred Hoyle’s 1957 science fiction novel The Black Cloud, an intelligent cloud of gas enters the solar system and establishes communication with the earth. It demonstrates a superhumanly subtle understanding of any information that’s transmitted to it. As scientists are uploading a sampling of Earth music, a lady remarks, “The first movement of the B Flat Sonata bears a metronome marking requiring a quite fantastic pace, far faster than any normal pianist can achieve, certainly faster than I can manage.”

The cloud considers the sonata and says, “Very interesting. Please repeat the first part at a speed increased by thirty percent.”

When this is done, it says, “Better. Very good. I intend to think this over.”

A Natural Mistake

brahms capriccio

The story of a musical misprint, with perhaps a moral:

A student whom Dr Goldovsky describes as ‘technically competent but a poor reader’ prepared a Brahms Capriccio (Op. 76 No. 2) which she brought to her lesson. She began to play the piece through but when she arrived at the C sharp major chord on the first beat of the bar 42 measures from the end, she played a G natural instead of the G sharp which would normally occur in the C sharp major triad. Goldovsky told her to stop and correct her mistake. The student looked confused and said that she had played what was written. To Goldovsky’s surprise, the girl had played the printed notes correctly — there was an apparent misprint in the music.

The error occurred in most published editions of the piece; hundreds of musicians had overlooked it. Goldovsky tested his skilled readers by telling them that the piece contained a misprint and asking them to find it. He allowed them to play the piece as many times as they liked, but none found the error. Only when he specified the measure were they able to see it.

The misprint is hard to spot because the bar in which it occurs is almost an exact transposition of the preceding bar. The underlying harmony is the very common V-I (G sharp to C sharp) over a C sharp pedal, and the notation in the preceding bar has already “set” the G as a sharp. So there are multiple, powerful cues for an experienced player to interpret the subsequent G as sharp.

“What is important to note about this story is that it was a relatively poor reader who was the first to uncover the error,” notes John Sloboda in The Musical Mind (1988). “Because she did not have the expectations of more accomplished players she required more information from the score to determine her performance, and so, paradoxically, read more accurately than more accomplished players.”

(Thomas Wolf, “A Cognitive Model of Musical Sight-Reading,” Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, April 1976.)

Invertible Minuets

schobert puzzle minuets

In A Thing or Two About Music (1972), Nicolas Slonimsky describes a series of “puzzle minuets” composed by 18th-century harpsichordist Johann Schobert:

Schobert is not a misprint for Schubert. He was an estimable Silesian-born musician who settled in Paris in 1760 and wrote many compositions in the elegant style of the time. Mozart knew his music well and was even influenced by his easy grace in writing piano pieces. Schobert was something of a musical scientist. Among his compositions is a page entitled, ‘A Curious Musical Piece Which Can Be Played on the Piano, on the Violin, and on the Bass, and at that in Different Ways.’ This page contained five minuets, one of which could be played upside down without any change, one which would result in a new piece when turned upside down, and one which would furnish a continuation upside down. Two could be played on the violin and on the bass by assigning the treble clef right side up and the bass clef upside down.

The full page is here. I haven’t tried playing it.

Artistic License

donald evans stamps

Artist Donald Evans spent his life painting the postage stamps of nonexistent countries. “The stamps are a kind of diary or journal,” he said. “It’s vicarious traveling for me to a made-up world that I like better than the one that I’m in.”

“On little paper rectangles he painted precise transcriptions of his life,” wrote Willy Eisenhart in The World of Donald Evans (1980). “He commemorated everything that was special to him, disguised in a code of stamps from his own imaginary countries — each detailed with its own history, geography, climate, currency and customs — all of it representative of the real world but, like real stamps, apart from it in calm tranquility.”

He painted them as watercolors the size of actual stamps, handling the paper with tweezers and working always with the same trusty brush. When they were finished he would sometimes cancel them with a fanciful postmark carved from a rubber eraser. He preserved them in a 330-page book modeled on a real stamp catalogue, recording in each case the name of the fictional country, the fictional date, the subject and occasion of the stamp’s issue, and the date on which he had completed the painting. He called this book his Catalogue of the World.

By the time he died in an Amsterdam fire in 1977, Evans had painted nearly 4,000 stamps from 42 imaginary nations, bearing dates from 1852 to 1973. He told the Paris Review, “The more I do, the more crazy and minuscule the detail becomes and the more stamplike they become. And that intrigues me. … One of the things I get excited about in making this work is that I try to make it look real.”

The guiding principle for his work, he said, was “basically that it describes something which I think is interesting and that it looks like a stamp.”

Good Boy

In 1794 Haydn visited the singer Venanzio Rauzzini at Bath. In the garden of Rauzzini’s villa he noticed a monument to a much-loved dog named Turk, with the inscription TURK WAS A FAITHFUL DOG AND NOT A MAN. As a tribute he turned the text into a four-part canon:

Rauzzini was so pleased that he had the music added to Turk’s memorial stone.

First Impressions

Shortly before its orchestral premiere in 1885, Johannes Brahms performed his fourth symphony for a small private audience in an arrangement for two pianos, played by himself and Ignaz Brüll.

After the first movement Brahms paused to assess its effect, and critic Eduard Hanslick, who was turning the pages, said, “For the whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people.”

Far From Home,_Hearing_and_Touch).jpg

This is a detail from the allegorical painting Taste, Hearing and Touch, completed in 1620 by the Flemish artist Jan Brueghel the Elder. If the bird on the right looks out of place, that’s because it’s a sulphur-crested cockatoo, which is native to Australia. The same bird appears in Hearing, painted three years earlier by Brueghel and Peter Paul Rubens.

How did an Australian bird find its way into a Flemish painting in 1617? Apparently it was captured during one of the first Dutch visits to pre-European Australia, perhaps by Willem Janszoon in 1606, who would have carried it to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and then to Holland in 1611. That’s significant — previously it had been thought that the first European images of Australian fauna had been made during the voyages of William Dampier and William de Vlamingh, which occurred decades after Brueghel’s death in 1625.

Warwick Hirst, a former manuscript curator at the State Library of New South Wales, writes, “While we don’t know exactly how Brueghel’s cockatoo arrived in the Netherlands, it appears that Taste, Hearing and Touch, and its precursor Hearing, may well contain the earliest existing European images of a bird or animal native to Australia, predating the images from Dampier’s and de Vlamingh’s voyages by some 80 years.”

(Warwick Hirst, “Brueghel’s Cockatoo,” SL Magazine, Summer 2013.) (Thanks, Ross.)

New Perspectives

A changeable sculpture by Swiss artist Markus Raetz:

A change of heart:

A similar idea in French:

The Dali Museum in Spain contains a room based on his 1934 painting “Mae West (Face of Mae West Which Can Be Used as an Apartment)”:

See Figure and Ground.

D.C. al Coda


This Katzensymphonie, by Moritz von Schwind (1804-71), resides in the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe in Germany. Dick Higgins, in Pattern Poetry, writes, “This piece, drawn in pencil and ink on music paper (but not orchestrated) has charm but does not appear to have been intended for performance at all. It may be a satire or lampoon on the famous violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1904), to whom it is dedicated.”

Perhaps it might be played on the Katzenklavier, a (thankfully) imaginary instrument described by Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin in his Musiciana, extraits d’ouvrages rare ou bizarre of 1877:

[A] chariot … carried the most singular music that can be imagined. It held a bear that played the organ; instead of pipes, there were sixteen cat heads each with its body confined; the tails were sticking out and were held to be played as the strings on a piano, if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow. The historian Juan Christoval Calvete, noted the cats were arranged properly to produce a succession of notes from the octave … (chromatically, I think).

In 1890 the Glasgow University magazine published this anonymous assessment of the musicianship of botanist and amateur violoncellist Frederick Orpen Bower:

There was a professor of flowers
The ‘cello he’d torture for hours
When the strings gave a growl
The cats gave a howl
And eclipsed all his musical powers.

Beauty and the Veil

I have often noticed at the Poetry Society that, after a poem has been read and applauded, when someone dares to get up and inquire what it means, there is likely to be a great outcry to the effect that one cannot analyze a beautiful thing. That is a basic absurdity and represents nothing but a variety of snobbery.

Some will declare indignantly, ‘This thought is too great to be definitely expressed.’ There is truth, I am certain, in the lines ‘whatever deep or shallow, new or old / is clearly thought, can be as clearly told.’ The writer who does not say what he has to say clearly, is shirking his job.

— Arthur Guiterman, quoted in Everett S. Allen, Famous American Humorous Poets, 1968