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Those Odd Musicians
Are musicians prone to eccentricity? The nineteenth century image of a composer was someone who spent a fair amount of time by the piano, poring over a manuscript in dim lighting, while trying out numerous revisions of the same musical passages until the right chords or other intended musical effects were arrived at. It was commonly thought that this repetition, along with the perceived introspective aspects of composing, could possibly steer one off into mental side streets.
In the children's programme Sesame Street, one often-parodied character was the songwriter, sat at the piano, who would fail to satisfactorily complete his four-line stanza despite trying countless variations, before erupting in a volcanic fury of self pity, thrashing the manuals, while bemoaning the perils of his life, lamenting his own lack of talent, and proclaiming he would never make it and his life was henceforth doomed!
Composers themselves may or may not have perpetuated the stereotype that society held of them as slightly batty individuals. We remember the quirky instances of course, and these impressions get codified through subsequent historical discussion. The composer John Cage is infamous for his solo piece, 4"33', where the supposed three movements consist little more of the pianist opening and closing the piano lid to demarcate the start and end of movements. Cage wanted to instill the idea that music consists of sounds around us - the sounds and noises that we hear on a daily basis form part of a musical fabric - but paying audiences listening to his work may have been forgiven in thinking he was slightly moronic. One wonders how the pianist performing this work may have rehearsed for it! And if you thought that was bizarre behaviour, the composer Alphonse Allais wrote "Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man", music to accompany the funeral rites of the deaf man. This piece consisted of twenty-four bars of rests.
Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff went even further with Funf Pittoresken for piano, a slightly absurd piece in which one of the movements, In futurum, consists entirely of carefully notated rests.
Composers may also have exhibited their eccentricity in other ways. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart often wrote into his musical works a succession of quavers prefaced by acciaccaturas, quick decorative notes, to mimic the chirping of birds. The faux birdsong punctuates the traditional classical harmonies of his Horn Concerto like an intended poke at Classical elegance and stateliness.
The composer Francois Couperin was known for giving strange titles which did not suit the Baroque style of his works. Among his keyboard preludes are ones bearing the titles Les Baricade Misterieuses (The Mysterious Barricades) and Le Rossignol en Amour (The Nightingale in Love). One may surmise that Couperin wanted to provoke more interest in his music than would be attained by giving names such as Prelude in C major.
Among other things, the composer Erik Satie is known for his Gymnopedies, a collection of elegant piano pieces. The first in the set is a perrenial pianist favourite. But the image we have of Satie as a sophisticated Impressionist - one we may arrive at after listening to Gymnopedies - may be somewhat skewed when we encounter his other works. Among them are Veritable Flabby Preludes (For A Dog), Three Pear-Shaped Pieces (there were actually seven), Things Seen From the Left and Right Without Spectacles, Menus for Childish Purposes, and Waltz of the Chocolate Almonds.
But one of the most eccentric works of Satie's must be his Vexations. It was a piece calculated to symbolise and create vexation on many levels. The music is written in an atonal key, and its many sharps and flats would annoy those trying to learn it. The sound of it might cause annoyance to those who hear it for prolonged periods. Satie reportedly wrote the piece about one of his partners who caused him a certain level of frustration, and it is said that his intent was to drum out any thoughts of her existence - hence the pianist is asked to repeat the piece a whopping eight hundred and forty times - until the monotony of repetition erases any flicker of emotion.
John Cage actually arranged a performance of Satie's Vexations. Pianists took turns to perform the eight hundred and forty repetitions of the one-page manuscript. At the end of the eighteen-hour performance, one member/survivor from the audience shouted "Encore!"
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