IN: Reviews

Petrucci, Kitchen, Big Fuges and the Music Biz


Petrucci Quartet from YouTube
Petrucci Quartet from YouTube

“Mozart in the Jungle” is Blair Tindall’s bitter/sweet semi-memoir, a “Moll Flanders Does (the oboe in) Big Apple in the ’80s and ’90s.” Tindall’s book provides provocative phenomenological, psychopathological, sociological, anthropological, political, and economic observations on the structure of classical music. The issues she raises will receive renewed attention with the expansion of a “Mozart in the Jungle” pilot on Amazon Prime into a season series [here].  Upon reading the book we are left to ponder: Whence and Whither Classical Music in Modernity. And then, there’s all that sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

For example, Tindall notes that a convergence of government and private funding spurred a glut of classically trained artists, and she wonders how, or if, demand can ever expand to provide enough employment. Not a question ignored now, if belatedly, by the educational establishment. New England Conservatory (NEC) has addressed this with its Entrepreneurial Musicianship department which aims at expanding the adaptive skills of its graduates. And on display Tuesday at NEC’s Brown Hall was one of the department’s works in progress, the Petrucci Quartet.

The Petrucci is a foursome of graduate and doctoral level players, to wit, Robert Anemone and Li-Mei Liang, violins; Shira Majoni, viola; and Joseph Gotoff, cello. They have enjoyed a funded fellowship year allowing them to form a professional identity while still in school. So, they have enjoyed the special tutelage of Nick Kitchen, first violin of the Borromeo Quartet. So, they graduate not only as individual string players, but also as a pre-formed and tested ensemble. In addition, they are encouraged to develop their own “hook,” a “brand,” in order to stand out in the market. In this case, the Petrucci have spent the year with Kitchen acquiring facsimiles of Beethoven’s autograph scores. The idea being to examine the originals to inform new, original interpretations.

Our young Petrucci scholars devoted the evening’s front half to discussion of their experience and discoveries, copiously illustrated with projections of the autographs. Focusing on Quartet No. 13, Op 130, and its associated Große Fuge, Op. 133, their first challenge was to discover where the six relevant movements were located. With excellent facsimiles acquired, strewn though they were across Europe and North America, they then made fascinating discoveries.

Turns out Beethoven used a much more detailed array of articulations and dynamic markings than were ever transcribed into any printed editions. He used the standard crescendo and decrescendo “hairpins,” for example, but with seeming consistency also employed a diamond-shaped crescendo-decrescendo mark with the points of the two hairpins touching. Another example would be his gradations of dynamic markings with several consistent variants for pianissimo, forte, and so forth. Apparently Beethoven wrote notes first and then passed through the score again to add slurs, dynamics and articulations. Unaccountably, sometimes he didn’t make that second pass. So we’re left with whole pages devoid of any markings. Hmm. Absent scotch tape or staples, we learned, Beethoven used sealing wax to paste revisions atop previous drafts. And thus, often times, his variants have been (unstuck and) preserved.

Exactly what were Beethoven’s performance intentions is ultimately unknowable, but in the context of the music, the players made consensus conjectures as to how to apply their findings.

Besides a newly enhanced and informed performance, the second ultimate objective is an online edition, hitherto unachievable, in the public domain. Along with their new, clean “printed” score, and parts, incorporating all previously omitted markings and indications, they will append all autographs and revisions. The Ultimate Authoritative Annotated Edition, voilà. Not for nothing do the young artists adopt the sobriquet “Petrucci,” after the website providing all classical music now in the public domain, and after “Petrucci, Ottaviano (1466-1539),” first printer of polyphonic music using movable type.

Further implications abound—

In this particular case, the Beethoven is in the public domain, if the holders of the manuscripts concur. But how can even such editorial labor be remunerated? In general, how is intellectual property to be protected enough to compensate creators.

Whither the printed music page? The Petrucci plays from laptop scores in a method pioneered, at least in part, by the Borromeo. Because of the ease of turning virtual pages with a foot-mouse, this allows playing from full score, instead of an isolated part. Whither the publisher?

Whither libraries? Why are institutions, public and private, still acquiring hard copy and expending hundreds of millions of dollars renovating or even constructing “libraries” on the old paradigm? The library of the future, already extant at some prescient universities, consists of astringently clean spaces (possibly even esthetically grand) with long spacious tables. The sum total of human knowledge, subsumed into the cloud, is accessible from terminals. Yes, we regret the held book. Yes, we heave a sigh over the truly gorgeous editions from such wonderful publishers as Durand & Cie, Paris–with their beautiful covers and finest quality paper and their infuriating Parisian prices. Some, in contracted numbers, will always acquire and prize these objets. But vast swatches of the Amazon River Basin will breath easier. So we might be told.

In their performance, the Petrucci chose to couple the Große Fuge, as originally intended, as the sixth and last movement of Quartet No. 13. Beethoven was eventually persuaded to sever the fugue from the quartet and supply a more manageable finale. In their preliminary exposition, the musicians played a number of rejected passages, playing also the composer’s ultimate decision. To no one’s surprise, we were inclined to concur with Beethoven’s final judgments. Likewise, the decision to uncouple the fugue, while reluctant, was also probably wise. Ludwig knew best. The Große Fuge stands alone.

As to the actual performance, the quartet’s playing was first rate and thoroughly engaging. Intonation, technique and stylistic nuance were all in fine fettle, with a professionalism to rival more mature groups. We did observe, with equanimity and without censure, a slight uncertainty of intonation when violin 1 played the very high bar in the Presto (II) that ascends to five ledger line B. In his own day, Beethoven must have assumed this was stratospheric, and he notates the letter names of each note in the manuscript above the note head! Happy to report, on the measure’s repeat and in subsequent returns to those perilous heights elsewhere, the notes were nailed. So? So what. Live performance is live. The rendition of III, “Andante con moto.” was particularly charming with Beethoven’s “Poco scherzoso” delivered with great wit.

In their execution throughout, the Petrucci did not over read their discoveries in the Beethoven autographs. We could see this because the autographs were projected overhead as they performed. I am not sure just what they actually “internalized” from their intensive study of the originals, though they spoke of an energizing and revelatory experience rehearsing from Beethoven’s original pages.

The Große Fuge in our experience is often (deservedly) honored more in the breach. The contrapuntal writing is dense, often seeming just too thick and ponderous. This writer has thought such contrapuntal density and extreme rhythmic complexity require extreme precision in intonation and rhythmic ensemble for any chance of success. This is also why we have thought that arrangements for string ensemble are hopeless non-starters. The added acoustic band of string sections (versus solo instruments) muddies the texture even more.

Grosse fuge manuscript page
Grosse fuge manuscript page

Whatever  came from Kitchen’s coaching, whatever from those manuscripts, whatever from their fine honed ensemble and excellent intonation, we were not the only person to remark independently to Kitchen that we had never heard this monster fugue so effectively conveyed. There was a lightness and clarity to the performance which made the contrapuntal thinking, for once and at once, obvious. Here was a Große Fuge with real transparency. And saying that verges on the oxymoronic. There was also a projection of wit and lyricism in some of the episodes, hitherto, to us at least, obscure. Someone once remarked that Toscanini’s conducting metaphorically stripped darkened varnish off old canvases, to reveal original vibrant color. So too this reading. An earlier Beethoven performance by the foursome is here.

Room for improvement? Of course. Next time, please get yourselves a laser pointer to illustrate your examples on slides.

We went to this presentation, part scholarly seminar, part concert anticipating a delectation for connoisseurs. In one sense it was. The unveiling of the Große Fuge was unexpected.

In this presentation by Petrucci, maybe we witness educational responses to Tindall’s concerns about the preparation and training of young classical musicians, about their chance for commercial viability, as well as to the fretting about greying audience demographics in general. Maybe Millennials will identify better with classical music, once it’s “sexed up,” with peer musicians shown in all their human frailty as Party Animals, just as “Born to be Wild,” just as potentially self-destructive. Then there is the local phenomenon here in Boston among twenty-somethings called Group Muse , now expanding nationally.

Then too, we were reassured this past evening, as to the inexhaustible originality of another generation reinventing the venerable.

Note: This review was edited post publication.

Tony Schemmer is a New York born composer, frequently performed locally, nationally and in Europe. Schemmer is an Overseer of New England Conservatory who notes that his son is currently engaged as a writer and co-producer for Amazon Prime’s “Mozart in the Jungle” series.


7 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Has all of the professional prep the Petrucci received really not included a photo or two that might be included in lieu of a product placement for the reviewer’s son? I enjoyed reading Tindall’s book and found the pilot very promising (more promo for you!), but this is a very strange and forced way to frame a review that really has nothing to do with either. I read most of the review expecting to read about Tindall appearing at NEC or some such. (All of this aside from the fact that the reviewer is an Overseer at the school where this event was produced. I guess we can be grateful these connections were acknowledged in the reviewer’s bio, but still.)

    Comment by zarlino — May 15, 2014 at 8:07 pm

  2. Kindly specify and elaborate on my “inaccuracies.” Please catalogue these errors so we can correct them in future editions. Don’t forget the footnotes and references, please.

    Comment by Blair Tindall — May 17, 2014 at 11:40 pm

  3. As for accuracy, it was in the 80s-90s, not the 70s.

    Comment by Blair Tindall — May 17, 2014 at 11:42 pm

  4. As for your ridiculous comment insinuating that I was writing about the “death” of classical music — you obviously didn’t read the book. I am an advocate for the clear and positive future of classical music. If anything, I mocked the critics who keep parroting this myth of classical music dying…(oh no! ellipses!) and used statistics and studies to prove that interest in the art form is actually growing. It is a happy story. The story of administrators using musicians to fund their mansions is not so happy. Please pick up a copy of the book and try opening it, and if you can sound out the syllables, give it a go.

    Comment by Blair Tindall — May 17, 2014 at 11:49 pm

  5. As for “historical accuracies,” you might take a look at the leading American History textbook. Recognize any names? The second author was added years after my father wrote it alone.
    :-) Have a nice day.

    Comment by Blair Tindall — May 18, 2014 at 12:30 am

  6. Publishers note: The author has made a couple of revisions in response to Ms. Tindall’s comments.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 18, 2014 at 6:30 pm

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