François e Chopin

The Notebook

Mia madre diceva sempre che Chopin si pronunciava Chhhopin, perché il cognome, diceva, era polacco. Questo mi fa pensare a François, un francese ultraottantenne, signorile alto e bello, che incontravo sempre a un bar del quartiere Prati, a due passi da ***, quando scendevo dall’ufficio di una società di cui ero consulente.

François era alcolizzato. Uscivo sul far della sera – era primavera, gli oleandri erano in fiore – e fatte poche centinaia di metri me lo trovavo seduto sempre a quel piccolo bar.
Beveva solo o in compagnia di una tedesca della stessa età, con i capelli composti e gli occhiali, anche lei alcolizzata.

Ora François, la pelle chiarissima e gli occhi azzurri, era un tipo straordinario. Ex giornalista di Paris Match aveva conosciuto il jet set parigino al tempo di Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo e Brigitte Bardot. Insomma la dolce vita francese degli anni ’50…

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François e Chopin

Mia madre diceva sempre che Chopin si pronunciava Chhhopin, perché il cognome, diceva, era polacco. Questo mi fa pensare a François, un francese ultraottantenne, signorile alto e bello, che incontravo sempre a un bar del quartiere Prati, a due passi da ***, quando scendevo dall’ufficio di una società di cui ero consulente.

François era alcolizzato. Uscivo sul far della sera – era primavera, gli oleandri erano in fiore – e fatte poche centinaia di metri me lo trovavo seduto sempre a quel piccolo bar.
Beveva solo o in compagnia di una tedesca della stessa età, con i capelli composti e gli occhiali, anche lei alcolizzata.

Ora François, la pelle chiarissima e gli occhi azzurri, era un tipo straordinario. Ex giornalista di Paris Match aveva conosciuto il jet set parigino al tempo di Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo e Brigitte Bardot. Insomma la dolce vita francese degli anni ’50 ’60.

Il padre di François era americano. Mi sedevo accanto lui e parlavamo in francese. Quando c’era la tedesca (colta e simpatica come lui, ma un po’ gelosa di me) parlavamo in inglese.

Mi sedevo e bevevo vino rosso con François. La tedesca preferiva il gin. La salute di François peggiorava ma l’anno dopo c’era ancora. Tra me e il francese era nata un’amicizia sincera.

La moglie, una scrittrice russa, lo chiamava al telefono quando gli ultimi tempi lo portavo al mare e ci sedevamo sulla spiaggia a mangiare spaghetti alle vongole e vino bianco ghiacciato.

Lui le rispondeva:

“Dove sono? Sono qui al mare con Giovanni, a ‘ faire et refaire le monde’ ”.

Gli parlo una volta per caso di Chopin, il cui cognome credevo fosse polacco. Mi dice con autoironia:

“E’ un cognome francese”
“Non è possibile, è polacco!”

Il giorno dopo lo rivedo con un grosso pacco. Dopo un bicchiere di vino rosso gli chiedo:

“Dov’è la tedesca simpatica che amava Carducci?”
“Chi lo sa se torna”

Detto con indifferenza ma François non era mai indifferente.

Scarta il pacco. Era un mastodontico dizionario Larousse. Lo apre e mi legge con orgoglio quasi infantile:

“Chopin era figlio di padre francese e di madre polacca”.

L’autoironia di François era fantastica, viveva l’orgoglio francese ma ci rideva su, non è facile da spiegare. Ci siamo quasi piegati sotto il tavolo dalle risate. Una delle serate indimenticabili della mia vita.

Un anno dopo – François non sedeva più al bar da tempo – incrociai la moglie non lontano dal tavolino dove avevamo passato quei bei momenti insieme.

Gli occhi della donna, intelligenti, profondi, mi comunicarono in un lampo verde un intensissimo, muto dolore.

Examples of Monodic and Polyphonic Music

Manuscript of the Musical Offering. Wikimedia. Public Domain

Ashish, the Geek Wrestler, once asked me for a sort of introduction to Western music. The reason I’m writing this is to save him from metal rock. But the topic is immense and greater than my knowledge, so I guess I can write brief notes on specific aspects, like this one.

One of the characteristics of Western music is polyphony, e.g. music made of melodies that travel independently throughout the composition though harmoniously combined with one another. This whole thing, of combining different melodies together, began in the Middle Ages, possibly by chance, and progressed in the subsequent centuries.

Western music can also be monodic, the opposite of polyphonic, whenever there is either just one melody (monophony) or when a melody prevails over other sounds that serve as mere accompaniment to the main star, the melody itself.

In this nocturne for piano solo by Frédéric Chopin (op. 27 no. 2) we have a cantabile melody, sometimes doubled and with ornaments, accompanied by arpeggios and bass sounds. It is evident here that the melody is the main protagonist, despite the surrounding notes and some voice layering here and there.

Let us first listen to the real thing (we chose Maurizio Pollini for his unromantic interpretation of this romantic work) and we’ll then listen to and view a computer graphical representation of the same work, which favours analysis.

In the computerized version below (by Stephen Malinowski) we notice that the double notes of the melody are not always parallel, which creates like a secondary voice. At the end of the piece there is some slight hint of polyphony. But on the whole this is not a polyphonic piece. Chopin is mainly monodic. Only at the end of his life he inserted some polyphony in his most mature works.

Let us now plunge into the great polyphony of Johann Sebastian Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No.4, iii, Presto.) This music – whose clockwork complexity I hope will not hopelessly bore an unaccustomed ear – is such hard stuff I prefer to propose a computerized version first (also by Stephen Malinowski.)

Different colours and timbers help to mentally separate the different voices. The exercise of following the voices separately is highly educating and can result in great pleasure. No easy thing at first though. I should have chosen a music with less voices (2 or 3 maximum,) but I couldn’t find a Midi music as satisfying as this one, although being able to identify 3 voices (hard already) or  just 2 can be all right at first. The representation is what one usually gets on a Midi sequencer, i.e. a computer software, such as Steinberg Cubase.

Now a version with real players (the performers being unknown to me).

The music of Bach here presented is a fugue (or fugato). In a fugue voices (parts) are not all equal. There is a subject or theme (like a main melody) that is repeated many times at different levels of pitch. It is good exercise as well trying to identify, among the bunch of voices, the subject of a fugue whenever it pops up here and there, which is pretty often.

The study and practice of “the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm” is called counterpoint. It was highly developed during the Renaissance and was common practice later, during the Baroque period (Wikipedia).
Independent in contour and rhythm. Very important in polyphony. If played or sung separately, voices or melodies still make sense!

One last music by this great German composer: the Brandenburg Concerto No.3 – iii, Allegro, rich with tremendous energy and beauty.

Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian

Utopian Medieval Town

Why musical improvisation is utopian? Because it is a place of the spirit that does not lead to any place. Utopia is a Greek word made of ‘ou’(= no) and ‘τόπος’ (= place), so its meaning is actually ‘in no place’. This is the reason why we say that musical improvisation is utopian. This idea in fact belonging to my generation – that improvisation was the big thing that could produce new insights & musical discoveries – led to nowhere.

In the 1970s musical improvisation as a theory and practice greatly influenced musicians. It was based on concepts like intuition, immediate action and reaction, and on the idea of mysterious mental faculties not far from Zen which were thought to favour the discovery of new patterns and unexpected solutions. Maybe it is not by chance that J. D. Salinger was attracted to Zen (see our post on digression in speech and writing; there is a subtle link between that post and the present one).

As far as we know (and our taste goes) improvisation has rarely created anything really interesting, with its tendency towards superficial results we can observe for example in some (or many) jazz pieces. Great composers and pianists like Chopin and Liszt used to be oustanding improvisers as well but their piano impromptus were seldom published and in any case were regarded by their creators as works inferior in quality (listen below to the Fantasie-impromptu in C-sharp minor by Chopin played by Valentina Igoshina; it is a work Chopin was not very proud of … well, maybe it is not too profound, but Chopin is Chopin … 😉 ).

In 1975 the American pianist Keith Jarret carried out a tremendously successful jazz improvisation at the Cologne Opera House in Germany. It was the famous Köln Concert that created a new fashion of piano solo music based on improvisation and which in my view is a beautiful piece of music but here too we note flaws like excessive repetitions and passages confused and predictable (you can listen to the beginning of this work thanks to YouTube).

Note. This Köln Concert – not to mention the splendid Impromptu by Chopin – is great stuff, I do not want to diminish it, being an explosive mixture of jazz with a scent of classical, blues, gospel and rock, all so inspired and “flowing with human warmth” (quote from Jazz: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd, London, 1995.) Just try to follow my point though and compare for example this Chopin’s Impromptu with other compositions by the same Polish-French musician.

An interesting aspect of improvisation is the high level of concentration required by the artist to produce anything decent, which some critics say it can favour a strong empathic relationship with the public. This is true but one can equally say that the same thing occurs during an inspired execution of composed music, namely music which did not spring out extemporaneously and was instead previously well constructed and thought over.

A great interpreter is in fact able to relive with renewed freshness a work composed even centuries earlier, which equally allows him to involve the public in ways empathic and with the added value of a work which is deeper and better constructed.

In short (and as far as we understand) the process of musical construction (composition) produces better results compared to this more or less spontaneous way of creating music called improvisation. What we are saying of course applies to other arts as well, such as theatre, dance, literature or rhetoric (i.e. public speaking, or writing, with the goal of persuading the audience): Romans like Marcus Tullius Cicero and Julius Caesar carefully prepared their speeches, even though, when necessary, they were able to improvise.

This doesn’t mean that improvisation isn’t a valid creative tool. We can play our instruments and express ourselves freely, or we can speak on the microphone of a computer in search of ideas for our writings. The resulting matter though should go through a post-production phase. It should, in other words, be purified and wisely inserted into the compositional process.

Italian version

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See also:

Digression vs Sticking to the Point
A Novel in the Hands of the Killers

Improvisations by MoR:

Two Piano Improvisations
A Dionysian improvisation