Friday, March 9, 2007

I don't take good first impressions

  • Current Commuting Company: Mendelssohn's Octet

After braving something new (Lieberson Neruda Songs) for almost half a week, I've returned to music I know well for my recent commutes: the miraculous Mendelssohn Octet. This is one of those rare pieces that I remember being completely taken in by the very first time I heard it - it was a live performance by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Pinchas Zukerman. I've since come to prefer it as a true octet as opposed to the fuller string orchestra version; but although I don't honestly recall any specific details of that performance, I remember being overwhelmed by the combination of soaring tunes, gorgeous sonorities, and almost ceaseless energy. I'm still awed by those qualities.

That Mendelssohn wrote it when he was 16 is one of its miracles. I don't believe Mozart or anyone else wrote anything this perfect at so young an age and I don't think the composer himself ever surpassed it. It's likely that, as with the sad Lieberson story or with the seemingly inspiring Joyce Hatto biography, this knowledge informs and colors my listening experience. And why shouldn't it? To pretend that music is just the sounds in the air is nonsense; music truly lives in how we hear it and what we know about the music is inevitably a part of that. So if I discover that Mendelssohn really wrote this when he was 17, I'm tossing out my CD.

It's somewhat embarrassing that I don't tend to experience good first impressions, even of works I later come to love. Obviously this is an issue for me with new music (for which I blame myself, not the music!), but I think it's mainly just that my basic attraction to music is so closely tied into the joy of anticipating something that I know is coming. Incidentally, I'm not that different with movies. Whenever I go to rent a movie, I always tend to want something I've already seen. Several of the movies on my Top 13 list made little impression on me the first time I saw them. I know that I slept through parts of Big Night and Junebug on first viewings and A Mighty Wind took a second viewing before I 'discovered' it. All three might have taken hold sooner if I'd seen them first in a theater, of course, but I don't think I would have caught all the wonderfully subtle moments that make them important to me.

Still, I think there are a lot of good listeners who have a better capacity than I do for absorbing something new right away. I honestly think it's partly a laziness thing. I wrote recently about how much I love Fauré's 2nd Piano Quartet, Prokofiev's 2nd Violin Concerto, and Shostakovich's 1st (of 2) Violin Concerto and I remember thinking I have hardly any acquaintance with Fauré's other piano quartet or the other Prokofiev/Shostakovich violin concerti. And, rather than feeling a sense of great excitement at the prospect of getting to know them, that thought made me tired. "Well, learning those is gonna take some work." I do realize that in each of these cases the work I know is the better known of its pair, but you'd think (I'd think) I'd be more naturally enthusiastic to widen my horizons. The take-home lesson for me is that most things worth knowing/acquiring take some work to know well. (The fact that I'm lazy doesn't count as a lesson. I already knew that.)

UPDATE (11/2/21): Just re-read this and realized I meant I love Fauré's First Piano Quartet, which I believe is better known than the second - which I still barely know. However, since this post was written, I have fallen madly in love with Prokofiev's 1st Violin Concerto and now consider it the equal of #2. So I can grow...slowly.


Elaine Fine said...

It's true. Mendelssohn wrote that Octet at 17. Don't toss that CD though! Go listen to the String Symphonies he wrote when he was even younger. Then there's the Violin Concerto.

The guy had fantastic training, tremendous family support, and a brilliant and inspiring older sister who also wrote great music. He was also very good at drawing, wrote extremely well, and was reportedly an all-around great guy.

As your kids grow up into full-fledged childhood you will believe in the brilliance of youth.


Actually, I think Wikipedia had it right on this one, even though I'm always telling students not to trust it as a final source. The New Grove Online says 16 for the Octet and 17 for the Ovt. to Midsummer Night's Dream which also isn't so bad. Even if it turns out that it was written by that guy who wrote Albinoni's Adagio, I'm still not giving it up.