Saturday, February 7, 2015


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Attention Span too Short?

Yesterday I had one of those bus-ride chats with a colleague who had just performed a "Schubert's Last Year" recital the previous evening.  His program had been wisely chosen; it made me wish I had heard it.

Rather than play all three of the last great piano sonatas - something pianists feel is now de rigeur - he had chosen instead to play the F minor Fantasy for four hands, the Shepherd on the Rock for soprano, clarinet, and piano, and one of the last sonatas, the big B-flat.  He was commenting on the difficulty audiences express about paying attention to the long sonatas, how much more interesting they find opera.

That led me to recall how I turned Schubert sonatas into one-performer operas instead of sonatas a la Beethoven, and how differently they come out.  (It is not an unlikely approach, as Schubert during his 31 years on earth walked around with 18 operas in his head, not all of them finished or even undertaken, but still...)  What is the difference?

We approach sonatas, I should say, some of us approach sonatas as if they involve themes and the treatment of themes.  If approached as an opera the music becomes immediately speech-driven rather than abstract -- as generally presented a theme is, in comparison to speech, abstract.

I do not approach Classical sonatas in that way, because I feel that the piano was always, from day one, an inflected instrument; that it prompted so much composition because of that quality.  Listening to or for themes involves repetition and is essentially boring because it entails repetition.  Listening to individual tones come alive is never dull.  Every sonata thus played is too short.