The current project is a chapter. I am under contract with Oxford University Press for a book on Chopin’s Second Ballade (the F Major, Op. 38), a project that I have been thinking about, and jotting notes on, for something nearing twenty years. The research process for the book involves drawing together information on the composition and genesis of the piece, analysis of the piece and the stylistic language it speaks, its musical environment (other works and genres with which it may have some relationship), reception and performance histories (reactions to the work by people who heard the composer play it), the cultural and political environment of the time, etc. Organizationally—getting it all in the right order—is something of a nightmare. The chapter I’m working on now deals with the First Ballade, Op. 23, which—being the very first work in the genre of the piano Ballade—is obviously part of the back-story for the Second Ballade. Because of the complexities surrounding that work, it is like a microcosm of the book itself. Read: also an organizational nightmare.
The myriad cultural, musical, and biographical confluences that contributed to the creation of these two utterly astounding pieces put me in mind of something Joshua Rifkin once said, when he was a Visiting Professor at Stanford (Fall 1989, I think). He gave an entire seminar on one piece—Josquin’s Huc me sydereo—and observed (in connection with a somewhat byzantine theory put forth in an article we were reading) that one of the most important decisions we would ever make as scholars would be whether ordinary or extraordinary explanations are required for artworks. Are masterworks produced, in other words, in response to normal circumstances and obvious pressures (composer felt like writing the piece, needed the money, it was time to write something for piano, etc.), or is extraordinary music the result of extraordinary circumstances and confluences. As he presented it in class he was agnostic on the issue, and I think most there put themselves in the former camp, under the approving glance of William of Occam. I knew on the spot that, rightly or wrongly, my instinct was to see extraordinary art as the product of extraordinary circumstances. (Tom Shippey’s Tolkien books are glorious illustrations of this perspective, at least to me: Tolkien was an extraordinary person with a unique scholarly mind who was burnished by circumstances early in life and the result was precisely that body stunningly imaginative work.) All my work on the style hongrois, the Hungarian-Gypsy style, and on various Chopin projects is consistent with this: these are works produced by extraordinary musicians, properly realized by extraordinary performers who understand the performance “accent,” shaped by extraordinary cultural influences. I have thought many times about Rifkin’s presentation of that choice, and how powerful an idea it was for me at the time.
It was a case of The One Remark. Years before, a composer friend in undergraduate school (now a stratospherically successful composer) had explained to me that composition students hope above all for the One Remark from their composition teachers. Sure, there’s plenty of localized help, suggestions, etc., but what you really want is the One Remark, that outlook-transforming, life-changing thought that sends you out of the studio a vastly different musician from the one who went in. Talk with any musician and you will hear instances of the One Remark from a mentor, a tutor, a visiting master. Younger ones listen in wonder as the story is told, punctuated by sips of coffee or beer or scotch; oh, but that was then. Now I’m just at an institution. Masters are different now. It must have been so different, the atmosphere so much more intense…I wonder if it will ever happen to me…
From the other perspective, of course, the One Remark can be a real millstone around the neck if, as a teacher, you’re always fumbling around for it. Wisdom! Pithy wisdom for every situation! No more sure way of becoming a pedantic self-satire. Whether you’re the teacher or the student, they have to just happen: the result of a perfect confluence of this question, that answer, the experience and perspective of this teacher that prepares him or her to deliver The Remark, and the experience, preparation, and desire of that student that makes him or her perfectly fertile ground to hear The One Remark in just the right way, that day, that moment. All of those stars and planets have to be perfectly aligned.
Extraordinary circumstances, in other words. I rest my case.