Heavenly Lengths

Our School of Music has a new initiative underway: a kind of town-and-gown chamber music event, at one of the downtown performance venues, with yours truly giving a pre-concert lecture, followed by the performance. Last Tuesday night was the Schubert Octet (string quartet + double bass and horn, bassoon, and clarinet), a work I haven’t studied in decades. It took just over an hour to perform. A colleague’s comment on the lecture was “I never thought I’d use ‘Jonathan’ and ‘charming’ in the same sentence!” which, given my behavior in meetings, is fair.

At my advanced age, finally, I have all the time necessary for Schubert. It was just bliss to hear hat-tip-to-Beethoven, pastoral, Biedermeier, and Hungarian-Gypsy styles converse and interact with each other, and the various instruments bring their personalities (clarinet as serenader and peasant chalumeau, horn as embodiment of nature, violin as café-entertainer, cello as cimbalom) to the musical discussion. Here is where Schubert stands alone: he makes art music of the highest order from the popular and vernacular styles (the aforementioned) of his time. He doesn’t seek to overtly challenge or confront, or push art past hitherto undreamt-of bounds. In large part, he seeks to please, but also to express his own tumultuous emotional life, which he does in the idioms of his Vienna—popular melodic styles, surprising harmonic turns that signal emotional shifts, and so on. The result is, of course, that his music delights, while challenging, confronting, and breaking down barriers. I used to lose patience with him, but now I have all the time in the world.

I tend to take pre-concert lectures and similar gigs very seriously, perhaps too seriously, but to me the balance between an engaging presentation and really giving listeners something they can use in experiencing a piece of historical art music is crucially important. For this reason, I spend a lot of time preparing, trying to get things just right. Because I live with a satirist (an old family tradition), this puts me at risk. The morning after the concert, it was 31 degrees Fahrenheit outside and my 14-year-old son came downstairs in a T-shirt. So, I thought I’d take the innocent approach:

“Which jacket are you going to wear?”

“When will you stop being so overprotective?” Oh, no; I’ve exposed my flank. The wicked gleam ignites in his eye. [I suddenly feel like the Count in Marriage of Figaro (which I’ve just seen two nights running): “…and I am unarmed…”] “Besides, you should be writing books and stuff, not just giving lectures…you FAILURE!”

Another county heard from. Memo to future parents: you can’t kill them if you’re laughing too hard. “Tough crowd!” takes on a new meaning in our house.

The Wednesday postscript to the performance was that the Dean, who attended the performance and thanked each of us personally, talking about each of our contributions etc. (as opposed to a bland “it was lovely”), sent a detailed, appreciative thank-you note to everyone, what we all did, how good attendance was, and so on. And sure enough, the buzz among those involved centered around what would be next: should we start earlier, what kinds of pieces, the venue, there really should be a meet-and-greet afterward. There is always relief after any kind of performance, but there is also that inclination (OK, vulnerability!) to making more plans, formulating more projects, concocting more schemes. The more positive the vibe, the more schemes, and appreciation makes for a seriously positive vibe. This gig demonstrated, yet once again, that it isn’t always about resources. People talk about resources and so on with respect to job satisfaction, and God knows that many of the concerns are pressing and money will forever be an unsolvable issue in this state. What I hear, though, is that it is not the most important issue. Making sure people have autonomy, enabling them to do things they need and want to do, and making sure they feel appreciated actually rate higher in terms of making sure your people have job satisfaction. These things are awfully good stopgaps while you’re working on money issues.

Oh, yeah, and food and wine afterward. Nothing attracts musicians like a feed.

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.
This entry was posted in Academia. Bookmark the permalink.