How Can Japanese Little Girls Play European Classical Music Perfectly?

Japanese little girl. Click for attribution and to zoom in

In the previous post we have shown two little Japanese girls capable of perfectly playing some music of the classical period.

Which surprised me in many respects and made me reflect.

Germany, Vienna and Italy

First of all by ‘classical style’ we mean the music created from the mid 1700’s until the first decades of 1800 thanks to contributions from Germany (Southern Germany – Mannheim etc. –  but not only), Vienna and Italy, which changed the spirit & the technique of music into something inspired by the ideals of ancient classical art.

In other posts we’d mused about this magical region where many centuries earlier Roma and Germania met (and clashed,) ie the Roman provinces (Germania Superior, Raetia, Noricum and Pannonia) along the axis of what was once the limes germanicus or frontier of the ancient Roman Empire (look at this map!) that separated the world of Rome from the un-romanized Germanic (and non Germanic) tribes (read more: 1, 2, 3.)

It may be a simplification (and an obsession,) but that ‘classical music’ in its narrow sense (in the broad sense it refers to all Western art music since its beginnings) was much later to be born in such cultural crossroads – well, it didn’t happen in our opinion by mere chance.

[Roman & non Roman. Where are hence the traces of this duality in today’s societies? – we had asked ourselves]

Haydn. Portrait by Thomas Hardy. Wikipedia image

Now this ‘classical music’, that followed Baroque and developed before the spread of Romanticism, is characterized by formal balance, a certain restraint and a terse simplicity attained with extreme economy of means together with a very refined taste: which makes the performance of such art daunting despite its apparent easiness. Its model is in fact that of Hellenic art, although adapted to modern times (and to modern music, since we know so little of ancient music.)

This may be a reason why playing Mozart, Haydn or Boccherini and Clementi ‘well’, that is, with the necessary purity, is often more difficult than rendering subsequent and technically harder pieces of the Romantic and contemporary repertoire. I saw pianists who could easily play Brahms and Scriabin but sweated their way through the end of a Mozart adagio.

The Japanese and the Russians

Now, that these Japanese children, coming from a different planet, are able to do this extremely well – isn’t it amazing?

Classical balance and taste is nothing one can improvise. One needs to have breathed such air.

Take the Russians, such formidable musicians. Not completely European ok but closer to us than the Japanese for sure, they have traditionally always hesitated before the classical repertoire (and when they didn’t … the result was often not among the best.)

So, the Russians fail where the Japanese don’t – there must be something in those Eastern cultures I am not aware of.

Some readers have got any ideas?

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In the meanwhile, as an Italian, I know the Japanese – a few I’ve met who study bel canto in Rome – love Italian opera quite a lot whose style always resisted the complexity of the romantic and late-romantic German harmonies and voicing (Verdi Bellini and Donizetti etc. on one hand, Wagner or Richard Strauss on the other hand: two different universes altogether! Roman & non Roman?)

Once more. What these oriental people may find in the Western ‘classical’ style of music?

Mario: “By the way, I heard that classical music makes hogs as fat as whales.”

MoR: “What?? Are you kidding me?”

Mario: “It is true! This Vietnamese pig farmer, Nguyen Chi Cong, found a new way to make his 3,000 hogs eat more quickly and happily by having them listen daily to the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. It seems the soothing effect is also working for other domestic animals!”

MoR: *Rolling eyes*

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Related posts:

Music, Politics and History

Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

From the two Sides of the Roman Limes

See also the series dedicated to the notions of ‘classic’ & ‘classical’ (1, 2 and 3)

Color in Music and Color in Words. Have We Got the Christmas Blues?

What can possibly the concepts of colour in music and colour in words have in common? (It’s a sort of reply to our latest post)

[I know, it’s Christmas time, how boring a few scattered thoughts on such stuff today. Merry Christmas in any case to all of you!]

Tone Colour in Music

Colour in music may refer to timbre, which is what allows us to distinguish a clarinet from an oboe, a sax from a trumpet and so on.

Usually even just a single instrument (the horn, the trumpet or the piano for example) can change its sound according to how it is played and to who is playing it, so we somewhat have different colours within the same timbre.

A piano played by different artists can produce very different results. I find the piano amazing since it can greatly vary its timbre especially considering that piano tones are directly produced by a mechanism and the only thing a performer can do is just a variation in velocity, ie in the speed and strength in which a key is pressed.

“When Ferruccio Busoni played [the piano] – Heinrich Neuhaus wrote (Neuhaus was Sviatoslav Richter‘s and Emil Gilels‘ teacher) – you heard the brass of trumpets, the trill of violins and the soft chords of harps.”

Classical Guitar. Expressive but Neglected

The classical guitar is even richer in colours than the piano [but unfortunately very few great musicians wrote music for this delightful instrument.]

Not only for the very sensitive human fingers (especially with no nails!) touching the strings directly without any mechanical intervention, but also for the right hand (the plucking one) that can move above, over, or below the sound hole thus greatly modifying the sound. Additionally the same string on a guitar sounds differently when plucked by the index, medium or ring-finger fingertips (again, with no nails). Last and not least, the same note can (pitch) be played on different strings, which varies the colour even more.

[As a break listen to Filomena Moretti from Sardinia (Italy) playing a prelude and fugue by Bach on the guitar. I wonder what her playing would be like without nails. Notice how the sound changes as she moves her hand from and to the guitar sound hole.]

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In some languages the connection between the concepts of colour and of timbre is more evident: Klangfarbe is musical timbre in German (Farbe = colour), and in English we have timbre but also tone colour, an exact equivalent of Klangfarbe.

Do We See ‘la Vie en Rose’?

Paul Costopoulos: “Someone feeling sad has the “blues”; we are “green” with envy or we are “green behind the ears” when we are new to something. One may be “red” with confusion and we see “la vie en rose”. Tying colors and feelings is nothing new and music is feelings.”

MoR: “Colours and feelings. Interesting. I never heard “green behind the ears”, but numerous are the English phrases I don’t know.”

Sledpress: “Color is vibration — the wavelengths of light — so sound full of vibrations and harmonics, created as one vibration overlaps another, could be called sound full of color. I remember reading a saying of Goethe about the world being composed of the “deeds and sufferings of light.”

MoR: “Goethe’s theory of colours is a splendid nightmare. And I wonder how these waves being so different can interact. Unknown territory.”

Sledpress: “I have a special fondness for splendid nightmares, like phlogiston (…) I do think there has to be some intrinsic connection between the measurable effects of certain types of vibrations on the human system and the subjective experience of those colors, sounds and so on.”

MoR: “Various are the effects of sound and colour vibrations on people and I ignore the progress of psychology and neuropsychology of colour and music in order to escape subjectiveness. I know there’s a lot of music and colour therapy based on some research being made.”

[Have another break by listening to these amazing Japanese little girls. They are in my view almost perfect artists already at their age!]

Colour in Writing

Mario: “And colour in writing? Forgetful you are.”

MoR: “Right. To me colour in writing is given by the vivacity of images. Examples of very colourful writers are to me Homer, Tolstoy, Gramsci, Garcia Marquez or Garcia Lorca. Also in the real sense that I see colours when I read them. Here, as with music (although I left it unexpressed above,) we have what is called synaesthesia.”

Mario: “Synaesthesia?”

MoR: “It’s when the sensory perceptions of taste, vision, hearing, etc.. mix. We receive them from our sensory organs, but they are processed, and sometimes mixed, by our brain.”

Mario: “So sounds can evoke colours, or the vision of an apple its taste, and so on.”

MoR: “Exactly. In literature the synaesthetic effect of colour could be triggered by the vivacity of images. The authors mentioned are full of glowing images. So if I say that a writer’s text is colourful I refer to his / her vigour, vitality, expressiveness as for the images he / she evokes. In music it is clear that tone colours – but also expressiveness of melodies etc. – can favour synaesthesia.”

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Mario: “How do you know those girls are Japanese and not Chinese?”

MoR: “Because a Chinese friend of mine has told me.” 🙂

Toccare le corde della chitarra con i polpastrelli, l’orecchio alla cassa

Chitarra classica
Chitarra classica. Click for attribution

Toccare le corde della chitarra con i polpastrelli (see translation following), carezzandole e accostando l’orecchio alla bella morbida cassa intarsiata per coglierne le vibrazioni più intime. Ho passato così tra i momenti più belli della vita.

Non amo la chitarra suonata con le unghie. E’ bella solo nelle musiche andaluse, ma per altre musiche il suono, più potente, è però meno ricco e più meccanico.

In altre parole ha meno colore.

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Divagando, cosa possono avere in comune il concetto di colore in musica e quello di colore nel pensiero / scrittura?

Foro della chitarra. Click for attribution

[English translation.

Touching the guitar strings with bare fingertips, caressing them while drawing our ear close to the beautiful, soft-wooden inlaid body to perceive its most intimate vibrations. I so spent some of the most beautiful moments in my life.

I do not like the guitar sound when strings are plucked with nails. It is beautiful only in Flamenco music, while for other music though more powerful the sound is not as rich and more mechanical.

In other words it is less colourful.

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What can (I’m digressing) the concept of colour in music and that of colour in thought / writing possibly have in common?

See our next post and its discussion for answers to this question]

Calcagni’s Memoirs. Pius IX Pardons Nino then Slaps Him on the Wrist a Bit (10)

Pius IX (Pope from 1846 to 1878). He was followed by Leo XIII (1878 – 1903) already mentioned by Carlo Calcagni in Part I, ch. 6

10th excerpt from the memoirs of Carlo Calcagni, a true Roman born almost one and a half century ago. Read all excerpts posted so far in English or in Carlo’s original Italian text.

Here the original Italian text of this post.

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Pius IX loved to take long very long rides in the country making the coach horses march at a steady trot to the extent it was said he made several croak.

So the escort squad had to undertake really long trots that were deeply enjoyed by my father but not so much by several other guards who didn’t share his passion for horse riding. Therefore my father replaced the unfortunate through small fees especially when the schedule foresaw long excursions.

One day the Pope decided to go to Anzio [see the route below along via Nettunense] and the trip being very long it was planned this time that the papal coach horses were to be changed, together with the escort squad’s horses and with those too of the guards who were to replace the horsemen who had already gone half the trip.

Route from Roma (A) to Anzio (C) via Cecchina (B) on Google maps (37 miles)

Hence my father with a greater fee arranged this time that at Cecchina (‘B’ on the map above) where the change was to occur he would take the place of Marquis Del Bufalo who didn’t like riding at all also because he was said to have a fistula.

Once at Cecchina horses are changed and my dad spots a magnificent Piacentini horse, a beautiful golden bay that he mounts with great joy.

Immediate departure but after a few hundred yards the train unexpectedly halts at the squad commander’s signal.

“What happened?” the Pope inquired.
“It is Count Calcagni who broke ranks.”
“Why, what has he ever done?”
“He got into the meadow and started to jump the fences for fun while his strict duty was to closely follow the train. He will be put under arrest.”

This time though my father didn’t serve the sentence because he was pardoned on the spot by the Pope who smiled benevolently at the bold youth’s escapade.

Pius IX knew my father well personally and treated him with great familiarity and benevolence.

Pius IX talking to his noble guards

When my father got married he of course presented the bride in a special audience with the Pope.

Imagine my mother’s fear and anxiety for such a visit. She went dressed in black and my father in uniform.

The Pope asked her what her occupation was but she got so frightened she remained speechless and lost her self-control. And since my mother gave no sign she had understood or could in any case answer, my father readily:

“She is a piano teacher, Holy Father.”

My mother had never touched a piano key in her life.

“Ah! brava, brava.”

Meanwhile Pius IX with great benevolence and a very subtle smile was seriously slapping my father on the wrist a bit.

Original version in Italian

A Pain Stabbed Jack Kerouac’s Heart. Un’improvvisa pugnalata al cuore

Girls in the street. Click for attribution and to zoom in

Quando si è giovanissimi [see translation following] e ci si imbatte per strada in una ragazza che è il nostro tipo se ne rimane come folgorati, e il dolore è tanto più acuto quanto più difficile (o impossibile) è la soddisfazione di tale desiderio, improvviso e assoluto.

[When we are extremely young and we stumble upon a girl in the street who is our type we are like struck dumb and our pain is all the more acute the more difficult (or impossible) is the satisfaction of our desire, sudden and absolute.]

Un brano di Jack Kerouac rende bene questa vitalità disperata tipica della primissima gioventù (da “On the road” che sfogliavo giorni fa; mi sembra di ricordare che anche J. D. Salinger abbia scritto qualcosa di simile):

[A passage by Jack Kerouac renders well this desperate vitality typical of early youth (from “On the Road” I was leafing through days ago; I think I remember J.D. Salinger wrote something similar too)]:

“I had bought my ticket and was waiting for the LA bus when all of a sudden I saw the cutest little Mexican girl in slacks come cutting across my sight. She was in one of the buses that had just pulled in with a big sigh of airbreaks; it was discharging passengers for a rest stop. Her breasts stuck out straight and true; her little flanks looked delicious; her hair was long and lustrous black; and her eyes were great big blue things with timidities inside. I wished I was on her bus. A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world”.

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In realtà al personaggio di “On the road” le cose poi vanno bene perché i due si ritroveranno casualmente nello stesso autobus e ne nascerà una storia, ma la descrizione della pugnalata è intensa e comunque credo sia esattamente ciò che ciascuno di noi, uomo o donna, ha provato più volte dai 10-12 anni in poi.

[Actually things ended up well for Kerouac’s character since the two will accidentally meet in the same bus and a love affair will ensue, although the description of the ‘stab’ is intense and in any case I believe it is exactly what each of us, man or woman, has experienced several times from 10-12 years of age onwards.]