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Pianist, Seymour Bernstein revisits the Schumann Arabesque at the age of 90

As I grappled with matters of tempo, mood, and interpretation in learning a Baroque era work, I found a kindred spirit in Seymour Bernstein who openly shared his introspective thoughts about re-thinking a well-known composition in the piano literature.

Encapsulated in an e-mailed communication to his league of followers, Bernstein addresses the common temptation among musicians to check recordings of other pianists to validate personal and individualized interpretative choices. His words are sobering and candid as he explains how he has come to choose a “new” pace and affective interweaving of emotions through various sections of the Schumann Arabesque, Op. 18. His enlightening revisit is a tribute to his evolving understanding of music that has grown by steady increments over decades. It suggests a creative point of departure from which we can derive great benefit.


***

Dear friends,

“Schumann’s Arabesque is among the romantic works that elicit a wide variety of interpretations. I, personally, don’t like to listen to performances of the pieces I study. I prefer to come to my own conclusions, and then listen out of curiosity to see how other pianists interpret the compositions I am working on. In terms of tempo, Arthur Rubinstein and I are the only pianists I have heard who take the opening theme of Arabesque leisurely. Everyone else races through it with breathless intensity, even though the English translation of Schumann’s indication is “light and tender.” More curious is that most pianists play sections B and C faster in contradiction to Schumann’s “etwas langsamer” (“somewhat slower”). I’m no exception. I confess that I did the same in my first performance of this work on You Tube, which I now will remove.

“Perhaps it’s the age of 90 that has inspired me to probe this work with far greater introspection than I have in the past. Now that I know that most “hairpins” in romantic music mean rubato, and not cresc. and dim. I take more time whenever they appear. Moreover, I like to play the coda, Zum Shloss, Langsamer (“slowly”) as Schumann indicated.

“Finally, the question is “How fast is fast, and how slow is slow?” It is the human condition to respond as we see fit. There are no rules concerning tempo, even though composers often leave Metronome markings. But through the years, composers have come to place the word circa, meaning around, or approximately, before the Metronome number. Beethoven said it all when Schindler asked him “Master, how fast is this Allegro?” Beethoven’s response must have amazed Schindler: “Allegro doesn’t mean fast,” Beethoven replied; “It means “merry.” The lesson we learn from this is that tempo indications are feelings, and not simply mathematical equations. Because we all think that the composers whisper their secrets in our ear, it is small wonder that there is an interpretation for all seasons.”

Seymour

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Piano Instruction: Schumann Arabesque, Op. 18-Using a supple wrist follow through motion, and parceling out voices (Video)

The Schumann Arabesque is a heartfelt character piece from the Romantic era. It requires the player to have a very supple wrist to realize the lilt of buoyant, legato dotted eighth/16th figures that permeate the music.

Though the composition is in C Major, it has interludes in the minor, that are somber and impassioned.

I chose to flesh out the opening section of the Arabesque for my current instruction. And in keeping with my assertion that learning should begin with baby steps, I isolated each of 4 voices, individually playing and contouring them.

Starting with the soprano (uppermost voice) I used my spongy, supple wrist to shape redundant rhythmic figures that would otherwise have sounded typed out and monotonous with a stiff wrist. (Breathing natural, full breaths were part of the process)

When I next identified the tenor, then alto voice, I gave myself the opportunity to combine the alto (and tenor, which was double stemmed) with the soprano. I then played bass and soprano lines together. This specific undertaking was a challenge because the alto figure along with tenor doubled notes could not overshadow the soprano line. The thumb also needed to be subdued so it wouldn’t intrude upon the uppermost voice that contained a very fluid melody.

The bass provided the underpinning for the composition, and was learned as thoroughly as the other voices.

Combining the bass with the tenor/alto voices, or separately playing this line with the soprano was an important ingredient of thoughtful practicing.

Putting all voices together with sensitivity to the balance between them, provided the necessary foundation for the piece to grow and develop.

Adding pedal was the final touch giving the composition nuance and polish.

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A Performance I’ll Never Forget!

I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to provide keyboard music at a Fresno art supply store. It happened quite unexpectedly around the time I’d bumped into Ralph Cato, US Olympic Boxing Trainer at the neighboring Guitar Center. (“Cato, His Killer Keyboard and A Round of Piano Lessons”)

Because I liked the establishment’s acoustical environment, I volunteered to serenade customers with Christmas music on my PX110 digital.

The space, located in a busy shopping area right beside Trader Joe had a high, wood beamed ceiling that gave a shimmer to even the worst bell and whistle keyboard, so my more spiffy 88-key, “weighted” one, would surely soar with streams of electronically generated sounds.

With the permission of the owner, a perky, middle aged woman, I plopped myself down with my gear next to a neat row of easels and promptly served up a menu of popular holiday carols along with Handel’s “Messiah” excerpts. It was enough of an audience draw to land me a steady paid gig at the “Second Saturday Art Exhibition,” hosted by this very establishment.

Each month local artists displayed and sold their paintings, while one selected in advance, was given a well publicized teaching table to share techniques with interested customers. The location was conspicuously at the front of the store.

I was to arrive at 10 a.m. to set up my keyboard, stand and other accouterments, and once settled in, I had agreed to play a steady stream of classical music, setting a nice tone for the event.

The owner strategically placed me behind the featured artist, who, on this particular weekend, would display her rock and roll subject era paintings. At first glance, these hardly made an impression, but upon closer examination, I realized that she had produced thought-provoking works. One, titled, “Solitude,” with a Beatles theme, had an instant association to “All the Lonely People,” one of my favorite songs. Its moody grays, pinks–shadows and silhouettes were mesmerizing, and the more I gazed upon it, the more I hungered to acquire this treasure as a trade for doing a few dinner parties at the artist’s house. Maybe she’d consider it. “Give me your business card,” she had said, before things got underway. A few had separated from my wallet and were lying on the floor beside my Casio keyboard, at risk to be trampled, but I had decided to leave everything in place, without a second thought.

The artist, a plump, middle aged woman, with flaming dyed red hair and steel green eyes sat by her table alongside one of her flamboyant keyboard theme murals. Occasionally, she dabbed it with grays and yellows while her husband, who appeared to be in his late 60’s, registered a strong, protective instinct toward her. Intermittently, he chatted with visitors to the gallery and carried on prolonged, audible chats with them.

I had just about set up after having lugged my 27 pound portable from my van along with other accessories–pedals, music rack, double braced stand, and an electrical source, when to my astonishment, the A/C transformer that plugged into my keyboard, got caught in the van’s sliding door, becoming detached from its wire. It was instantly rendered useless! What a great segue way to my second banana appearance at the Second Saturday exhibition!

Luckily, the Fresno Guitar Center was within easy reach, so I raced over to borrow a substitute that was taken from one of the Casio digital floor models. “Guy,” the store Manager had already delivered a keyboard size bench since I’d inadvertently left mine at home.

With a working transformer the music would soon be up and running, but not before the art establishment’s proprietor raced over like clockwork to do a volume check on my keyboard. She’d decided on a half knob sound level because of her concern that “background” music could drown out conversations between the artist and a stream of visitors. While I believed that a 50% volume cut would significantly muffle the music I had selected, I went along with it. In a paid situation like this, aesthetics were often put aside in favor of pleasing an employer. We musicians were used to keeping our place.

Right on the button at 11 a.m. I sent dim electronic impulses into the universe to the accompaniment of nearby conversation that grew intolerably distracting. A group of visitors to the featured art table who leaned right up against me, were comparing plumbing disaster stories and bad home re-modeling adventures. The toilet bowl intrigues were particularly invasive to my concentration, so for tension relief, I found myself mumbling a private wish fulfillment. After the concentration shattering dribble ran its course, another flock of visitors replaced the first, talking at a higher volume level, and through all the dizzying banter not one person noticed Beethoven’s heavenly music trying to squeak out of an electronic box.

As I moved on to play Baroque period Scarlatti Sonatas with their shimmering ornaments and trills, I noticed the registered displeasure of the artist’s husband in his angry demeanor. He was sending an inaudible, though pervasive message, that my music was too loud.

The situation hearkened back to a party at which I was invited to play, located in the Huntington Lake neighborhood. At the time, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to sample a 7 foot Bosendorfer grand that was hand-picked by my dermatologist at the Vienna factory. What an awesome instrument with a resounding bass and lyrical treble. The rehearsal was definitely memorable and should have been savored as a special moment because once I was seated at the piano at the glitzy event, the Bosie quickly dwindled to half its size. Hordes of noisy guests crowded in on me with cocktails in hand and within minutes I could no longer hear what I was playing. It could have been a selection by Bach, Mozart or even Stephen Foster.

***

The circumstance at the art store was comparable. No one had acknowledged the music through 90 minutes of playing and increasingly, I received alienating stares from the protective husband who I’d learned had been a long-time member of the Fresno Philharmonic horn section.

But I persevered and moved on to the Beethoven “Adagio” movement, from the Sonata “Pathetique,” with its doleful melody that instantly brought tears to my eyes.

Within moments of my musical immersion, I was distracted again by the leering husband who looked like he was about to approach the keyboard and turn down the volume himself. Instead, the store owner did it for him. She arrived just as I was playing through the agitated middle section of the Beethoven slow movement and with lightning speed, she threw her arm in front of me, nicked my cheeks, and zapped the volume knob, stopping my performance in its tracks! I felt the whole world crumbling around me, and I wanted to escape the whole nightmare right then and there. It had been the same with composer, Robert Schumann, who in his Neue Gezeitschrift fur Musik (New Journal of Music) wrote about purging the dilettantes from the face of the earth! He depicted the earnest war against them in his “Davidsbundler Tanze,” written at the height of the Romantic period. His self-made “League of David” was a proverbial collective of artists, composers and performers who upheld the intrinsic value of higher art in the face of destructive forces.

With the spirit of Schumann hovering, I gritted my teeth and played his “Arabesque” with its forlorn spindle of themes that reflected my countenance. Almost on cue, the store owner’s associate arrived on the scene. Sarcastically, she said, “Now why don’t you smile, honey, ‘cause you have such a pretty face.”

My tolerance threshold was waning and I realized that if I didn’t pack up my gear sooner than later I would emit a primal scream that might summon an ambulance. I would surely be carried away involuntarily.

Just as I was about to make my gallant departure in defense of higher art, my 83 year old friend, “Ruthie” neutralized everything. She sauntered in and greeted me in her usual chipper way. “Hi, there,” she said, “I’m sorry for being so late, but everything just went wrong today. The worst part of it was that my JC Penney card disappeared so I had to call them and cancel the account.” At that very moment, I looked down at the floor where my wallet was placed to see if it was still there. The business cards nearby had strangely disappeared, so I had reason to panic. My money and ID’s might have been taken as I was immersed in the works of Scarlatti, Schubert and Chopin.

Meanwhile, Ruth roamed around the gallery viewing paintings, and then warmly greeted the displaying artist whom she seemed to know. My senior citizen friend was a talented water colorist who had a small art studio within her home where she painted and taught. We had enjoyed a nice companionship over the years, and in the course of time, she had become the chief screener of my newly released CDs. I would bring the Master to her home, and she made comments about the order of my selections and the sound balance from one to another. She enjoyed the process of quality controlling my disks before their official release.

It was about 12:45 p.m. and I needed a well deserved time out, so I inserted one of my own recorded classical CDs into a Sony boom box that I had brought along. The owner had concerns about it when she saw me carrying the monstrosity into the store along with my keyboard and related gear. “It’s just for the breaks,” I had reassured her, “like for 15 minutes of each hour.” The artist’s husband had a frightening look as my CD resonated through the awesome space with its astonishingly high ceiling. In a matter of time, exploding emotions could cause a face off.

Just then, Ruth chimed in proudly, “Oh my gosh, you’re playing CD #3, one of my favorites.”

I had decided to let the disk run on perpetual “repeat” because I was not looking forward to playing “live” again, with all that was transpiring around me. Just in the nick of time, “Sharon Cooper” walked in with her husband and four year old daughter. She had been enjoying her Wurlitzer console piano that had settled into her Lemoore home. An instrument with wonderful resonance and personality, it had been acquired for all of $500, an irresistible bargain. The piano also had a delicate pecan cabinet that complemented its lovely voice.

Sharon had agreed to come to the art store after my performance so we could both dash over to the Guitar Center to select a keyboard. She needed a supplementary instrument with earphones so she could practice late into the night without disturbing her sleeping daughter. At the same time, I dropped off the transformer and bench that I had borrowed from Guy.

By late afternoon, at least Sharon was happy. She left the Guitar Center with a gem of a keyboard and then Ruth met me at “Whole Foods” for lunch. Another ray of sunshine appeared when one of my piano finder clients had sent me a $20 gift card in appreciation for my having steered her to the resonating PX110 Casio digital piano.

Ruth and I had a nice repast and shared a chocolate chip/oatmeal cookie that someone had left, completely wrapped, on our table. Finally by the very late afternoon, I drove home, crashed on my sofa, and woke up dazed and disoriented in the middle of the night. Ironically, I had dreamed that I was playing in Carnegie Hall to a pin drop silence. Gratefully, I went back to sleep with a pleasing smile on my face.

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