Sunday, 1 June 2014

Learn to Play Mozart in 70 Years

I have particularly liked the A minor Rondo K 511 ever since I first heard it played by Alfred Brendel. So about a year ago, listening to one of his recordings and following the printed music, I thought ‘Well it doesn’t look or sound so very difficult: perhaps I could learn at least the first page or two.’ As so often with Mozart, what looks and sounds easy isn’t.

Here are the first few bars:


Straightforward enough surely, but it was the twiddly bits, the misleadingly so-called ‘Decorations’, that gave me trouble. At first I wasn’t even sure whether that three-note acciaccatura, right after the introductory upbeat, should go before the beat or on it. Teacher said before the beat, so naturally I held out for on the beat, and only after repeated listening to various recordings did I hear that, of course and as usual, Teacher was right.

Then in bar 7 (not counting the upbeat) comes the first of many turns, or gruppetti — not written out, just marked by that thing like an uncompleted infinity sign. A gruppetto is a sort of little four-note dance around the main note. Sometimes it comes at the beginning of the note, more typically at the end, as here where it uses up the second half of the time of the E. You can see and hear gruppetti in the main theme of Mozart’s well-known (indeed hackneyed) Turkish Rondo:


They are the little groups of four semiquavers, though here they are fully written out, being an integral part of the music. One simply couldn’t imagine the Turkish Rondo without them.

Back to the K 511. Soon after that first gruppetto there’s another one, and they start coming thick and fast, and from four notes they stretch to six or eight, or more difficult still, five or seven. Indeed, the whole piece sometimes seems to me a sort of essay on gruppetti and other ‘decorations’, which are here, I think, almost as integral to the piece as in the Turkish Rondo. So when Teacher, who didn’t know the piece, said I should first learn it without them, I made my usual fuss, persisted for a while in struggling to keep them in — I am what you might call ‘rhythmically challenged’, so was soon very lost — and eventually gave the whole thing up. Now, a year later, I’m trying again, at last acknowledging that Teacher was right all along. (Not the first time this has happened: I live in fear that one day her exasperation will overcome her saintly patience.)

The fact is that learning to play a piece is much more different from ‘Just playing it’ than one might think: to learn a piece one often has to set aside one’s ideas of it and one’s reverence for the composer’s Ur-text, and pull the thing into almost unrecognisable bits. It’s been said before, but bears repeating: Mozart is too easy for children, and too difficult for grown-ups.

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