The One Remark

Jonathan Bellman

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.

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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8 Responses to The One Remark

  1. Eric says:

    For a short time I studied with a fascinating professor at Iowa named Martin Jenni. Jenni was the only bona fide genius I have known: he spoke twelve languages, had two types of perfect pitch (what ever that means), and could penetrate a score like nobody’s business. (He is now dead, but people who know him speak of him as a mystic of sorts.) Although an intellect of the highest order, Jenni’s closest friendships were with everyday-folks around town. I found this surprising in that I figured he would hang out with all the powerful minds there on campus; thus, one day I asked him why his friends were so ‘normal.’ As a response, I received my proverbial One Comment: ‘You take friendship where you’re lucky enough to find it.’ I found this a remarkably moving and profound observation; meaning: ultimately the emotional ties we form with people are rarer and more precious than superfluous intellectual sparing (the type we academics thrive upon).

  2. Lisa Hirsch says:

    One of my jujitsu instructors, the late Professor Pat Browne, was responsible for more than one One Remark in my life. But I’m not surprised Joshua Rifkin handed you yours; he was one of the best and most inspiring teachers I’ve known.

  3. ECG says:

    Doodz, Rifkin is a blowhard. Fake British accents are what musicologists a bad name.

  4. Lisa Hirsch says:

    I have to ask if you’ve studied with him.

  5. Phil Ford says:

    I like the idea of The One Remark. When I was finishing my dissertation I made a list of such thoughts — I called them my fortune cookies — which automatically opened every time my computer started up.
    From James Hepokoski: “Always historicize.”
    From David Lynch: go fishing in your head. Be patient and be still; let the ideas float up from the deep and take the hook. Bait the hook with something beautiful.
    A Zen saying, remembered from a book by Alan Watts whose title I can’t remember: When you stand, stand. When you sit, sit. But don’t wobble. (This makes sense if you’re me.)
    From J. J. Hunsecker in “The Sweet Smell of Success”: It’s later than you think!
    From the Beastie Boys: A slight distraction can get you paid.

  6. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Oh, I like those.
    Pat Browne on jujitsu teachers, but this applies elsewhere in life as well: “Don’t listen to what we say, watch was we do, because we’ll lie to you and never know we’re doing it.”

  7. ECG says:

    LH: you got me there — it’s true I ain’t got the actual student-teacher connection to the Rif to back up my assertion. He is not, ahem, fondly recalled at your alma mater (of which I am a fellow scion). Anyway, all I need as evidence of his alleged blowhardedness — fake accent aside — is summed up in his 2003 Josquin article in JAMS (talk about giving musicology a bad name –). Blooooooooowhard. But I’m glad yours was a pleasant experience.

  8. Jonathan says:

    OK, then. Two from my life:
    From my Dad, observing my tendency to overly theatrical facial expressions:
    “Jonnie, don’t play poker.”
    And, taking off from Lisa Hirsch’s quote from Pat Browne, here’s George Houle, first-day meeting of the doctoral students at Stanford, Fall 1986:
    “YOU must be the custodians of your own courses of study. Any of us faculty member can and will give you bad advice at the drop of a hat.”
    This astounded me. But there it was: on Day One, Prof. Houle inoculated me once and for all against Master-worship, against blind trust of academic authority figures, against suppressing my own instincts, against not taking full responsibility for what was happening to me in my doctoral program every step of the way. Yes, certainly this accorded with my own native obstreperousness, my lack of patience with authority figures (even when I think I’m paying obéisance to authority), my raggedy discipline, my tendency to chafe at the bridle. All true, and I don’t know how many others heard Prof. Houle’s remark the way I did, as a real clarion call. I have been eternally grateful to him for it, though, and have told him so on more than one occasion.
    Here’s the other thing. At that very moment–and remember, I was in the Performance Practices DMA program, not the Ph.D. program, and so might have been considered as a kind of second-ranker (though I never conceived of myself as such)–I was made to feel NOT as a student or flunky, but rather as an apprentice equal: you’re in, it’s fine, we’re all going in the same direction, it’s your responsibility, we’ll help, now let’s get on with it because we’re all interested in the same stuff. This stood me in good stead, because I was told I was barking up the wrong tree more than once, in a couple of cases rather firmly. I simply figured the faculty member in question was wrong, not me. Sorry he didn’t get it. Whatever.
    One such case was the *style hongrois*, the Hungarian-Gypsy style that was the subject of my first book, and now is the subject of others’ articles, dissertations, and at least two CDs. “Oh, you mean the Gypsy style as a kind of exotic topos or…ah, NO.” I thought: ah, yes. Sorry.
    Another was my final dissertation project, which was on Chopin’s variants as noted in his students’ scores of his Nocturnes, and how we might go about making our own. “The proof of this particular pudding will be in its indigestibility,” I was told. I did it anyway. Haven’t pursued this one much–yet–but the Chopin recordings of Bart van Oort use variants.
    See:
    http://www.bartvanoort.nl/index.php?id=4
    I don’t think he read my work, but that’s not the point–the point is that the question was REALLY worth asking, from a performance practices perspective, and so must be asked whether one is “allowed” to or not. Prof. Houle’s remark simply set the gyroscope of my intellectual instinct upright, once and for all. Hail!

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