Showing posts with label Henry Steele Commager. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Henry Steele Commager. Show all posts

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Plaintive Melodies

As much as we enjoy returning to live on our boat in Connecticut, the worst thing about summer is leaving my piano behind.  If I was a professional, or played nearly at that level, it would be intolerable.  But I remember having once worked with the great harpsichordist, Ralph Kirkpatrick (in the capacity of publishing and cataloging the works of Scarlatti), visiting him at his home in Guilford CT which was populated by harpsichords and grand pianos.  He had made lunch for us, with some wine, and before we got back to work I timidly asked him whether he might like to play a piece.  He looked at me as if I had lost my mind, saying he never gives private audiences and especially not after a glass of wine.  I wondered, doesn't the love of music transcend everything else? 

Contrast that experience to the one I had with Henry Steele Commager, who was the dean of American intellectual historians.  I used to visit him in Amherst and we would work in his study on the second floor.  On the first floor he had a baby grand piano and one day, again after lunch, I asked him whether he played.  He raced to the piano and I quietly sat listening to him play a Beethoven sonata, and very competently. For Commager, playing the piano was his creative outlet and during that moment historian took second place.  I understand that.

My piano has been good to me this past year and in fact we've been partners, preparing programs that I performed at the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, a rehab facility, and at The Waterford in Juno Beach, a retirement home.  Actually, most of the music I played at the Hanley Center was impromptu from fake books but at the Waterford I gave musical presentations with some commentary (Ann frequently helping me with the latter), something I really enjoyed doing, and now have programs for the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schönberg, and songs of the Great American Songbook as immortalized by Frank Sinatra.  

Next season, I'll do others and perhaps record another CD at a professional studio.

Of course I have no illusions about the enduring value of such recordings, other than having goals keeps one young, and it is a joy to be able to play.  Luckily for me, my kind of piano playing -- reading the melody line and improvising with chords -- is sort of like riding a bicycle; once you know how to ride, you can do it anytime without frequently practicing.  So, a summer away from my friend doesn't really set me back in terms of my ability to play. 

Nonetheless, as we prepare to leave, I look at my piano with a melancholy regret and I tend to play pieces that reflect that mood. Recently, I found myself playing some Bill Evans songs, constantly reverting to his "Time Remembered" -- a piece with abstract, floating harmonies, not exactly melodic.  It reminds me a little of Debussy, but in a more abstract form, so I found myself fiddling around with some classical music, not one of my musical strengths, but what better piece to play than Debussy's "Reveries" as a bookend for the Bill Evans piece.  From there I turned to one of Stephen Sondheim's most beautiful ballads, "Johanna" from Sweeny Todd,  much more structured than the Evans piece, but all three musical compositions share this sense of the plaintive. 

I set up my camera and recorded the Sondheim piece, a brief rendition (BlogSpot has restrictions on video size).  It is less than two minutes. and as I never play a piece the same way twice, improvising much of it, when recording (especially video with just a digital camera in our echoing living room), some self consciousness encroaches.  Nonetheless, I include this below as a musical statement of the moment and particularly because "Johanna" most accurately captures my mood.   Whoever said Sondheim can't write a beautiful melody is crazy as this is one of the most haunting songs I know.  It is also one of his few outright love songs.

We'll be on the road soon and the blog will go quiet for a while.