Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Fun with exams!

One of my favorite parts of giving music exams is playing the Listening ID examples. I don't just mean that I enjoy the tortured looks on students' faces (although that's pretty cool), but I'm often struck by how much I enjoy hearing the excerpts (at least some of them; after all, there's often a little Haydn to be endured). First of all, there's the reality that one usually listens in a different, often heightened way when presenting music to someone else. It's that sense of trying to imagine what the other is hearing, and hoping they hear what makes the music worth listening to. (That's really more important than getting the answer right.)

For example, whenever I play the 2nd verse of Bach's Christ lag in Todesbanden cantata for a class, I find myself getting virtually choked up (I don't really get choked up often, but if I did, this would be a time) both at the intensity of the music and the feeling of hearing it "through the students." I know that it's likely many students don't hear it the way I want - that, in fact, they can't hear it that way until they know it well, but still . . .

It's especially interesting to me, in a navel-gazing sort of way, to see which exam excerpts I find myself unexpectedly drawn into such that I feel disappointed at having to cut them off. From my "Survey of Musical Masterworks" exam, the ones that "got" me were: 1) Beethoven's 5th, opening of 2nd mvt., 2) Victoria, Kyrie from Missa O magnum mysterium, 3) O soave fanciulla from La bohème, 4) opening of the 1812 Overture. Let's take the last one first, since it's a bit embarrassing.

Frasier once said to Niles, "Remember when you used to think that the 1812 Overture was a great piece of classical music?" Niles solemnly replied, "Was I ever that young?" It wouldn't be my first choice for a class, but I gave in and went with what the textbook/CDs use. However, whatever flaws it may have, those gorgeous cellos at the beginning get me every time. Yes, my cello-playing days make me biased, but a few phrases of the old Orthodox hymn just had me wanting more. By the way, I hate it when this opening is sung by a choir - not only do I miss the cellos, but this is a case where the subtle suggestion of singing is more evocative than the real thing. And this piece can use all the subtlety it can get.

With the Beethoven, I actually couldn't help but let the theme carry through to m. 22. That takes about 55 seconds, but the beautiful way in which that melody unfolds and evolves requires its resolution. Beethoven is so demanding! I don't even know the Victoria very well; it was just a 'mystery' piece I'd hastily selected to test style-recognition skills, so I had the wonderful feeling of discovering it right there, and I didn't want it to stop. As for the Puccini duet, I'm putty in its hands.

What's my point? It's certainly not that the other pieces on the exam were failures; everything has its time and place, and on a different day I might have responded to other works. But this feeling of being caught up in the pull of the music is the point, after all, of so much of this art. What I love about Jeremy Denk's ongoing allemande analysis is the clear sense that he feels the music pulling at him and the analysis flows from that, even if it means goats get involved.

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