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This week's featured recording:

Waltz in Ab
by Frederic Chopin

Valentine's Day can be difficult for some. It certainly couldn't have been easy for Chopin's intended, but in return for his bad behavior, he did give her a nice waltz, which you can listen to while you ponder the unfairness of people and the messiness of their relationships in general (or specifically). It is my Valentine to you, particularly if yours is not what you'd like it to be.

You can read more about this piece on the blog: The Dresden Connection 
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New on the Blog   (updated Feb. 9)  
from the concert hall... Monday 2/1/16
The boring bit in the middle
sometimes French toccatas seem to have donut holes in them
from the teaching studio... Wednesday 2/3/16
Improvising an alternate introduction to the doxology
improvisation doesn't need to be huge
from the organ bench... Friday 2/5/16
for organists -- Changing the culture at your church (part three)
dear diary: the staff doesn't even know I exist!
for February 9

"Civil War"
first posted October 5, 2009

A few months ago, while writing an article about Schubert, I flippantly presumed that there was no book called ‘musical composition for dummies.’ I was making the point that a creative act does not lend itself to having an answer key in case you get stuck. It is not like 2 plus 2, with an answer that is knowable and identical for anybody who bothers to find out. The way you get out of a creative jam is you figure out what the answer is yourself, because each piece is different. There will, of course, be traditions to which you can refer, and great composers of the past whose works you can study; no piece exists in a vacuum. But any truly artistic effort will succeed on its own terms—the shape of the piece determined by what you are trying to say through the contents of the notes, and vice versa.

But I thought, while I was at it, I’d better look and see if somebody had indeed written a book called ‘Composition for Dummies.’ Turns out, they had. Somebody had written a review of it, and they weren’t all that pleased. I haven’t read the book, but I imagine it does contain some of the simple, recipe-like formulas that I stated were not what creativity was really all about. The sorts of things that could allow just anybody to write music by learning a couple of simple ideas and then basically coloring them in. It is, after all, for self-identified ‘dummies.’ You don’t start a course on ‘Math for dummies’ with long digressions on Differential Calculus. First you have to be able to add.

The reviewer focused on some things that he felt were just plain wrong factually, and suggested, that if the book contained so many errors in things he knew, what else might be wrong in things he didn’t? These things probably will strike most non-advanced-degree holding musicians as picky, but I think they hold water. The first had to do with the book’s definition of the development section in sonata form. Quoting from the book (on page 148) he wrote:

"The development often sounds like it belongs in an entirely different piece of music altogether -- it is usually in a different key and may have a different time signature than the exposition."

A little definition may be in order here. Most Symphonies, Concertos, Sonatas, and so forth, contain several ‘movements.’ To the uninitiated they may seem like merely a group of pieces, though they are usually related in a number of ways. The first of those ‘movements’ usually is cast in ‘sonata’ form. This means that it contains three sections, the first of which contains the composer’s melodic (and perhaps harmonic and rhythmic) ideas for the piece. The second, development section, attempts to expand upon, transform, pit ideas against each other or in other ways deal with the materials given out in the beginning section. It is not, in some respects, that different from a musical essay. Having told us what the composer intends to discuss in notes and phrases, the composer goes on to discuss it.

Our reviewer was unhappy that the book gave the impression that the development section was in fact not related to the opening section at all. It is after all much too easy to just string ideas together without any attempt to make them relate to each other. Did you see the end of that football game last night?

Just kidding.

Mr. Reviewer wanted to get things straight, terminology-wise, but he put his views online, which means they get equal time with anybody else, regardless of their manners or knowledge. A couple of folks rose to the book’s defense. The first tried to use a specific piece to refute his idea of sonata-form development in general—Beethoven’s so-called ‘Moonlight Sonata’ has, he thinks, three parts which don’t sound related to each other at all, at least to his ears (it also happens to be a bad example of textbook sonata form; Beethoven knew it, too, which is why he labels the famed ‘Moonlight Sonata’—which was not Beethoven’s title, by the way--a ‘Sonata like a fantasy’ which is another way of saying that this is a Sonata that really behaves like a piece from a completely different genre, let’s say a science-fiction murder mystery. Or a fictional historical novel.)

You can tell from the post that English is not this fellow’s first language. Nor is music. He is polite, but he thinks that because the 2nd and 3rd movements sound, in his opinion, completely different from the first, that makes the first fellow’s case unfounded. He is confused about what sonata form is. As I said above, it refers to different sections within a single piece, or movement. The different movements are, in effect, separate pieces of music, which belong in a group, all under the title Sonata. The first movement is what usually contains a development section in the middle. Our reviewer tried to patiently explain this, and that was when he came under attack from some jerk who was probably trying to pick a fight by being as condescending as he knew how and telling the reviewer that he obviously didn’t know what he was talking about, using words like ‘foolish and pathetic’ and ‘idiot’ to describe him. It is not worth dwelling on his comments, since he used most of his time to deride his predecessor and none trying to make the case (except in the grossest generalizations) that he knew anything of the subject himself.

Let’s go back to the quote again. The reason I found this worth posting is the question it brings up when writing about music for laypeople, or amateurs.

"The development often sounds like it belongs in an entirely different piece of music altogether…"

I’ve italicized those words above because, on careful inspection, it doesn’t appear that the book’s authors are necessarily suggesting that there is no relationship between the opening section (the exposition) and the development (which, by definition, develops what came before), just that it might seem that way. Why would they say this?

Perhaps in an attempt to be friendly with the book’s readers. People often do not hear the connections which musical ideas have with each other, particularly over long pieces. We aren’t taught that in school, and it does not seem to naturally occur to people in music, although in another medium, say a Seinfeld episode on television, in which getting the joke depends on remembering something that happened ten minutes earlier, people seem to be able to pick up on it fairly easily. Most people usually listen to music that doesn’t function on this level because it simply repeats the same musical ideas again and again without changing them in any way, therefore there can be no relationships between various parts of the piece because they are either identical, or completely disjointed (like when it is time for the chorus, which then repeats its phrase several times). "Popular" music generally assumes you aren’t interested in connections between musical thoughts; so-called ‘classical’ music challenges you to find them. With a little help from your friends, perhaps.

But if you are a self-described ‘dummy,’ with a low opinion of how much you can learn with a little patient effort over time, or you are an author anxious not to appear too much of a snob by using terms like exposition and development, and want to relax your worried audience by making jokes and being entertaining, and by not dwelling on technicalities that perhaps can be saved for later, you might look at such a line as a good way to connect, never mind whether it’s accurate. Of course, the reviewer only quoted this one sentence. If the book’s authors went on to refine their statement, explaining that there really is a relationship between the exposition and the development (otherwise it wouldn’t be a ‘development’) than perhaps our reviewer is being a bit of a nitpick after all.

The book’s other reviewers were unilaterally lavish in their praise. Perhaps it is the very thing for the people who need it: speaking to them where they are, not shutting the doors to the halls of art or driving people away with too much technical precision or jargon. The question, though, is whether the book is playing too fast and loose with music as it is, or as it could be, sacrificing accuracy for entertainment, or truth for simplicity. I don’t know. The reason I want to bring this up is not limited to this particular book. Writers on the arts for lay audiences always come up against this issue. I often find myself wrestling with the same problem. This website was not designed for experts, but for those willing to discover something new. It (hopefully) doesn’t presume a lot of technical knowledge. Terms are defined, or left out, and jokes and generalizations are aplenty. Is that going too far?

I’ve read several things on the web and in books that I think do go too far. Trying to draw in the uninitiated always risks diluting your delivery, betraying your substance. Does it always? Can we have it both ways? Can we who know much about art and we who know very little but are willing to find out cut each other a little slack? If someone wishes to correct our statements, should we thank them, even when we think they are being annoying? Can the rest of us tolerate a few slips on the parts of those trying to learn, so long as they don’t fall in love with their own ignorance and tongue-lash anybody who tries to help them out of it?

What do you say: truce?