Traditions I: The Pianist-Composer

Jonathan Bellman

A somewhat rare bird is the pianist-composer, the professional musician who plays both other people’s works and his or her own. For whatever reason, the concert piano world seems to favor the competition winner du jour, or the physically attractive person, or the person with “star” quality, but rarely the most interesting musician. Perhaps ’twas ever thus, but it raises the question of just why the hell we play and listen if real creativity and communication are secondary. As the title of a French piano treatise of 1840 suggests, though, at one time superb playing and excellence in composition were two sides of the same coin; only by being highly accomplished at one could you expect to excel at the other. Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmerman’s L’Encyclopèdie du pianiste compositeur spends lots of time with approach to the piano, with technique, but also with harmony, with how to ornament preexisting melodies, and with other musical matters. Well into the twentieth century, many top virtuosi also composed their own music and transcribed other people’s music in concert versions.

Make you be easy: I’m not going to start with the everyone’s-a-trained-monkey rant. Perhaps that’s a blog for another day. I come to praise, not to carp (for a change). The Chair of the piano department at the University of Michigan, Logan Skelton, composes in addition to his more conventional pianistic activity. I first encounted his Civil War Variations, based on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a few years ago, when I was regularly evaluating CDs for a review publication. Aside from those characteristics one would normally want in a variation set—contrast, attractive piano writing, a nice dramatic trajectory—what struck me was the wit of the piece: puckish references to other composers and works, pianists’ in-jokes and so on. I could see a studio of graduate-level pianists (perhaps at Michigan?) weeping with laughter at this, while a more unsophisticated audience would simply enjoy the tunes and figuration. This is a piece that works beautifully, as did the best late eighteenth-century music, for both Kenner and Liebhaber, experts and thems what just likes a good tune. Skelton’s wit is rambunctious and irreverent, like a musical Mark Twain on his game.

People with Windows Media Player can sample it HERE.

I’ve also just received a recording of Skelton’s two books of songs on the poems of e e cummings. Likewise irreverent, showing a certain defiant cantankerousness, these songs share above all cummings’s joy—a nigh unto ecstatic joy, at least to my ear—in word- and sound-play. Listening to them is rather a rollicking experience, odd as it may seem to use that word in this context. Maybe the best part of this music, for me, is the absence of anxiety. It never seems to ask what it should be, or what American music should be, or if it’s OK. As such, one enjoys it, getting the jokes or not, with the same confidence and lack of anxiety. Both CDs (Civil War Variations is on American Grab Bag) may be found HERE.

The last time I had this experience was with a piece I was introduced to this past summer: the Café Music of Paul Schoenfield (another pianist-composer; sample it HERE). Insane wit, Schubertian by-play of vernacular musics (Jazz, café, Gypsy, Klezmer, Broadway, you name it), all with a seamlessness and cartoon soundtrack-like warp-speed sense of humor. How often do I walk out of a concert with an honest-to-God grin on my face? Perhaps it is the performer in the composer that provides the real foundation of that old tradition: people who do a lot of performing have a sharply attuned sense of what communicates, what “works.” The pianist-composers are, of course, but one large example of this executant-as-creator pattern.

Remember the plays of an Elizabethan actor named Shakespeare? Note how, four hundred years later, people are still ready to kill each other for the opportunity to speak his lines onstage, be it at the Royal Shakespeare Company or your local high school’s Shakespeare festival? The deep context to Timeless Art may just be the experience of lots of art that almost works, or works for a while, is superficially attractive but fades quickly, or really doesn’t work, or is total garbage. The lone genius with stylus, score paper, and attitude is, for me, a pattern that’s a lot more difficult to cozy up to.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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