Guest post by Sylvia Segal

Sylvia is a music-lover and The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s most longstanding reader


Dear Fran,

Your blog’s 10th anniversary reminded me that I’ve been meaning to send you a musical message. Lockdown has meant a lot more listening time which, though solitary, has been a great pleasure.

As you know, I have a tendency to have mini love affairs with selected composers, meaning that temporarily I listen to little else. You’ll remember my ‘Chopin period,’ I’m sure. Before that there was Ravel. And Mendelssohn’s chamber music. Bach puts in an appearance regularly, as does Haydn, who always lifts my spirits. And so on.

Anyway, lately it’s been all about Schubert’s piano sonatas for me. Not necessarily the final three, but early and middle ones. Years ago, I bought a 7-CD set of them, played by Ingrid Haebler. The earliest sonata on there is no. 3, and already he’s modulating in a way that reminds me of a tightrope walker without a safety net! It makes me smile to hear him tie himself up in knots, only to untie them a moment later, as if by magic.

Beethoven famously remarked that the piano “couldn’t sing,” but I think Schubert put paid to that idea. (And Mendelssohn.) If you’re able, listen to the slow movement of Schubert’s sonata in B major (D.575). It’s a song. It IS a song. A beautiful, sad one.

On the subject of whether the piano sings or not, I have never forgotten the study day that Robert Levin presented at the British Museum about the evolution of the piano. Focusing on the period that is his forte (sorry, pun), late 18th/early 19th century, he made the very interesting point that composers like Mozart and Haydn didn’t expect the piano to sing, they wanted it to SPEAK, in the manner of well-argued discourse or civilised conversation.

I was reminded of this in Paris in February, where I picked up a free copy of the New York Times in our hotel, and read an article about John Eliot Gardiner entitled “Treating Beethoven as a Revolutionary.” It was about rehearsing Beethoven’s symphonies with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in connection with Beethoven 250 (I expect those performances didn’t happen, sadly), and he said something that really struck me:

Another thing I think is important [as well as the clarity and exhilaration you can achieve with original instruments] is to encourage the players to “speak” their lines, so that each phrase emerges as a kind of sentence made up of words that they articulate with consonants as well as vowels. Beethoven, it seems to me, is asking for declaimed narration. He conceives of his symphonies as developing and dramatic narratives, and that, in turn, demands an acutely conscious declamatory approach from the players.”

So interesting! I do often think of music as a language, and individual composers’ styles as their ‘handwriting.’ This wordless language has its own structure, vocabulary, grammar—none more so than the music composed around the time of the Enlightenment. Mozart and Haydn spoke it fluently and effortlessly, and we as listeners need to be familiar with the rules of the language before we can experience the thrill that comes when we hear them broken.

Beethoven and Schubert – both voracious readers – inherited this formal language. But I think they became less and less interested in the discourse/conversation aspect, focusing rather more on what Gardiner calls “dramatic narratives.”

Lockdown has afforded me time to think more about the music I’m listening to, which is one of the many good things that have come out of it. A good friend and I keep marvelling at how unconstrained we’ve felt (I know, a contradiction!), and how the extra time we’ve had has not been a burden. Rather, it’s been a gift.

I’ll leave you on that happy note.

With love and warmest congratulations on The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s tenth birthday,

Sylvia


A note from The Cross-Eyed Pianist:

Sylvia is a good friend of mine and, when she lived in London, a very keen concert-goer, especially at the Wigmore Hall. It was Sylvia who encouraged me to start going to classical concerts again, when my son was at an age when he could be left more happily with a babysitter, and we have enjoyed many memorable concerts together. Sylvia was this blog’s first reader and remains a loyal supporter (and eagle-eyed proof-reader!).

 


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I really didn’t expect to be writing this post…

When I started this blog in the summer of 2010, I did so without any expectation that it would be anything other than a place where I could write about the music I was listening to on CD and in concerts, the piano music I was learning and my experiences as a piano teacher. I certainly didn’t expect anyone to read my musical ramblings! But read they did, and some readers left comments and so conversations and a sense of community developed across the internet.

Ten years ago, blogging was still a relatively new form of writing/journalism; today it is almost de rigueur to have a blog, and some have become very well known, often independent voices which provide a refreshing, sometimes non-mainstream, perspective. For many of us who blog, it is simply a way of sharing a passion – whether it is music, food, cycling or knitting – and a means to connect with other likeminded people.

My passion is classical music, and particularly the piano – the instrument, its literature and the exigencies of being perhaps the most solitary of musicians, a pianist. When I first started writing this blog, I had been playing the piano seriously for about four years, having returned to the instrument after an absence of some 20 years. Part of the motivation behind the blog was to share my experiences as an “adult returner”, the pleasures and frustrations, what it felt like to take lessons again as an adult, performing (in both exam and public settings), connecting with other pianists, attending piano courses, and more. Often after a piano lesson, I would rush home to write down what had happened, giving me an important opportunity to revisit the nuts and bolts of the lesson, and distill and share the knowledge with others. I also charted my progress through three performance diplomas via this site, an action which a concert pianist friend of mine described as “very brave”, whereas I just saw it as a way of sharing my learning outcomes in the hope that others might find my experiences helpful, and maybe even inspiring.

As the blog has evolved – and I have always felt that a blog needs to offer plenty of variety and regularly updated content – I have found myself drawn further into the world of British classical music (again, a place I never expected to be!), and in the last five years in particular, with my reputation more established, I realised that this was where I’d always wanted to be. I feel comfortable in the presence of other musicians, whether professional, student or amateur, music professionals, and fellow bloggers, reviewers and journalists in a way I never felt in my previous career, and I welcome and appreciate the opportunities the blog has given me to attend concerts, CD launches, music courses and many other events.

Launching the Meet the Artist interview series in 2012 has given an extraordinary insight into the creative lives of musicians and composers, offering a glimpse beyond the concert platform and the notes on the score into the day-to-day lives of these remarkable people, and debunking some of the traditional preconceptions surrounding classical music and musicians. The interviews are fascinating, honest (sometimes painfully so), entertaining and inspiring.

But for me the most gratifying aspect of blogging is the connections I have made and the wonderful interactions and conversations that regularly take place via this site and also on social media (where I probably spend far too much time!). I’ve made friends through this blog, in both the virtual and real worlds, and I really value these connections which have seemed even more significant during these long months of lockdown.

Just as a concert is not a concert without an audience, this blog would be nothing without its readers, of whom there are now some 25,000 per month (a figure which continually amazes me). So I must first thank everyone who reads, shares and comments on the articles contained here.

A huge debt of gratitude must also go to musicians and composers, not only those who have taken part in the Meet the Artist series, but also those whose music I have heard in concert and on disc, who engage in this remarkable activity in a profession which is tough, competitive and precarious (and never more so than now).

I would also like to thank all those people who contribute guest articles to the site. Your contributions keep the site fresh and give readers an opportunity to hear different voices and opinions.

Whether I will still be writing this blog in another 10 years’, or even 5 years’ time, remains to be seen, but while it continues to interest me to do so, and while there is the inspiration and motivation, I will keep writing.

 

Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

 

This month, this site reaches its 10th birthday and I’d love it if you would join the celebrations. There are a number of ways in which you can join in and be featured on this site:

  • Send a recording of you playing some music – it can be anything – and if possible include a few lines about the music and why it’s special to you (perhaps you spent the long weeks of lockdown learning it?)
  • Compile a playlist on YouTube or Spotify
  • Write a guest article on any music-related subject

The celebrations will continue all month, so please feel free to submit your contribtions over the  coming days and weeks and I’ll upload them as they come in.

There are also celebrations taking place over on The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s Facebook page and of course I’ll be tweeting all the wonderful contributions you send in.

One of the most significant aspects of this blog for me, as its creator, is the sense of community that surrounds it, and the important connections and conversations it sparks. I’ve made so many new friends as a result of the blog, in the virtual world and in real life – all connected by a shared love of music, and for many, like me, a passion for the piano.

Use the Contact page to get in touch

I look forward to hearing from you.

 

Frances

The Cross-Eyed Pianist

I would like to offer what support I can via this blog and my social media networks to musician friends and colleagues, music teachers and others in the profession who are going to find the next months very challenging indeed.

Here is what I would like to do:

  1. Share details of forthcoming CD releases, and other material.
  2. Share videos and audio clips
  3. Share articles and other resources which others in our community may find helpful and supportive
  4. Stay connected with the musical community via my social networks

Separately, over on my piano teaching blog, I’m launching a forum called Coffee Shop Conversations. This was inspired by a friend of mine, an adult amateur pianist to whom I give occasional piano lessons and who always has plenty of queries for me surrounding repertoire, practising, piano exams and more.

Please feel free to contact me here or via Twitter to submit material for inclusion.

More support for musicians from my friend and fellow blogger Adrian ‘Specs’ here

Meanwhile, stay well everyone and let’s keep in touch.

img_2281Fran The Cross-Eyed Pianist