Saturday, October 20, 2007


All the pianos in my family had benches full of sheet music, and that music was mostly popular classics of the "Music the Whole World Loves to Play" variety. We tend to hold that repertoire in fairly low esteem these days and I doubt many kids these days grow up playing the Dance of the Hours, To an Evening Star, or the Minuet á la Antique. The repertoire was not only light or character pieces, though, it also included four-handed arrangements of symphonic works and operatic transcriptions that brought both sophistication and clarity to the transmission of music. The disappearance of that entire repertoire is a marker for the loss of music making at home as the central activity in a musical life, activity from which the concert halls, opera houses, player piano rolls, broadcasts, and recordings all extended.

As a composer, I recognize that producing sheet music for home consumption is no longer the kind of enterprise from which careers are made (indeed, the last American composers of serious music for whom that could have been true were probably MacDowell and Griffes). But if I really want live performance to be the vehicle for my art, informal music making in private settings must nevertheless be recovered for new music, if new music is to have a place in the culture that is both high and deep. Engagement with the new music -- if it is to be more than casual, recognizing the wealth of detail, rich association fields, and structural interest -- has got to go beyond passive consumption and become active, a close encounter. If I've got Dichterliebe or The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs on my piano, I want to play at them, singing through them with my composers' croak, and get to know them better than Stardust or Yesterday, because there is simply more to know. I want my daughter to start playing the cluster music in the first volume of Kurtág's Játékok and maybe later some of Mumma's pieces ...from the Sushi Box or Monahan's Piano Mechanics, because the challenges to ears and hands will simply make her a more interesting person.

The composer Lawrence Dillon writes here of an unusual event, a house concert programming one of his pieces. Isn't the unusual aspect here not the concert itself, but the fact that such a concert should be rare?


Corey said...

I wonder if the fact that pianos are disappearing from households is due in part that more and more people (at least in US cities) are being crammed into tiny apartments?

Daniel Wolf said...

Corey --

Europeans, Koreans, and Japanese all tend to live in much more crowded conditions than Americans, so I am uncertain about causality there.

That said, given the ubiquity of electronic keyboards, why hasn't a home repertoire of music for those instruments developed?