Friday, February 15, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

Articles in the mass media tend to fall into specific narrative groups. This one is a member of the group we might title "pop music today is just not as good as it used to be." The New York Times has the story: They Really Don’t Make Music Like They Used To.
For decades, musicians and engineers have employed dynamic range compression to make recordings sound fuller. Compression boosts the quieter parts and tamps down louder ones to create a narrower range. Historically, compression was usually applied during the mastering stage, the final steps through which a finished recording becomes a commercial release.
Yes, this article is about the "loudness wars" we have posted about before. More and more the dynamic range of pop music is compressed and wedged up into the top of the spectrum. This has implications for the aesthetic depth and emotional range as well, of course. There is a similar trend with videos on YouTube I have also noticed. More and more we find the people narrating videos on cooking, commentary, education and a host of other topics delivering their thoughts in a high-energy rant with no breaths (they are edited out) in the most raucous voice possible. Agh!

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Didn't we do a post like this for composers a while ago? The 10 Most Overrated Musical Artists of All Time. The really inexplicable thing about this list is that it includes The Doors, but does not include U2. Weird...

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This is a very odd sort of YouTube clip. It is a short discussion of an artwork Jordan Peterson created called The Meaning of Music.

One thing for sure, this brief clip will get you thinking.

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Alex Ross has a piece up at The New Yorker on trends in the performance of Baroque music. He calls it The Dizzying Democratization of Baroque Music:
In recent years, the Baroque repertory has undergone a dizzying democratization, as two midwinter concerts in New York made plain. At Weill Hall, the Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński sang music of Nicola Fago, Domènec Terradellas, Gaetano Maria Schiassi, and Johann Adolf Hasse, alongside a little Vivaldi. In the Fuentidueña Chapel, at the Cloisters, the ensemble Sonnambula based a program around the Flemish composer Leonora Duarte. The absence of historical celebrities hardly hurt attendance; both events played to full houses.

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The American Scholar has a piece on Charles Griffes, a composer who, had he not died very young, might have been a great American impressionist:
Mysterious, haunting, and beautiful, The White Peacock (like Kubla Khan and other works) compels us to imagine precisely how Griffes might have developed had he not succumbed to an early death. Would he have worked on a larger canvas, perhaps attempting a symphony? Would his aptitude for vocal music have led him to write an opera? Harmonically speaking, would he have continued to explore the dissonant sound worlds of his 1918 Piano Sonata? Might he have taken a turn in the direction of Stravinsky? So many unanswerable questions. At any rate, it might be facile to speak of Griffes as an American Debussy, but had his life not been so frustratingly short, had he indeed reached full artistic maturity, we might today be speaking of some other 20th-century composer as the French Charles Griffes.
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And for the provocative and scurrilous part of our program today we turn to Slipped Disc where we are treated to the naughty bits from a review of the immersive film experience Dau. As usual the comments are particularly fun.

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A big viral hit on YouTube is a bluegrass tribute to atonal music. I kid you not. You have to hear the atonal banjo solo. And the John Cage tribute.


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An appropriate envoi might be the Sinfonia No. 1 of Leonora Duarte followed by the Sinfonia No. 5:

I do not have an explanation for the Darth Vader mask the performer on the left is wearing in the second clip.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Sofia Gubaidulina, part 17

If you have not seen this series of posts before, you can go back and read them from the beginning. Here is the very first post:

In the mid-1980s her career really started to take off outside the Soviet Union. In 1985 the West-Deutscher Rundfunk produced a studio recording of Perception that was broadcast in January 1986. Also in 1985 the Berliner Festwochen commissioned a new orchestral piece. The result was Stimmen ... verstummen, a symphony in 12 movements based on numerical proportions and silence--one movement is a silent solo for conductor. Here is a performance by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, the dedicatee:

In July of 1986 Gubaidulina made her second trip to the West to attend the Lockenhaus Festival near Vienna in Austria. The two composers featured in the festival were Schubert and Gubaidulina whose Perception was given its concert premiere. In September 1986 Stimmen ... verstummen was premiered in Berlin. On this occasion Gubaidulina met and received praise from a number of Western composers including especially Luigi Nono who was very impressed with her music. In 1988 Stimmen ... verstummen received premieres in London and Denmark. The big year of 1986 also saw Gubaidulina attending the big contemporary festival in Huddersfield, UK. On this occasion she met some English composers for the first time including Peter Maxwell Davies and Oliver Knussen.

1987 saw Gubaidulina visit Cologne where her Hommage à T. S. Eliot was premiered. This is a work for soprano and octet in seven movements inspired by the Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poetic works in English of the 20th century. Here is a performance of the first four movements, credits in the YouTube description:

Friday, February 8, 2019

Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Treason

One of the odder aspects of the near-total politicization of life in advanced societies these days is the notion of "cultural appropriation." There have been a lot of strange cases lately: open a taco shop in a Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles and if you are not Hispanic you can be accused of cultural appropriation and demonstrators might force you to shut the business. Wear an antique Chinese dress to a graduation if you are not Chinese and you get condemned on social media for cultural appropriation. Lots of other examples.

In the area of music it is even more absurd. I think we talked about this before. Just about everyone on earth has appropriated ideas about intervals and scales from the ancient Greeks and most musicians use the staff notation that can be traced back to Guido of Arezzo, an Italian monk living around the year 1,000 AD. Music is all about appropriating everything that has been done up to now and then coming up with something new.

But I have a more horrendous case to reveal: just about my whole career has been, not just a case of cultural appropriation, but of actual cultural treason! Yes, I have never had much interest in authentic Canadian music (which largely is based on English, Scottish and Irish folk music) and got my basic grounding in musical techniques and aesthetic values while studying in Spain. I have long been a fan of the music of the great Viennese masters, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and even made a pilgrimage to Bach's grave in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Lately I have been most influenced by a quartet of Russian (or Soviet!) composers: Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sofia Gubaidulina. Could anything be more treasonous? There is even a quite significant Asian influence on my composition.

Lock me up and throw away the key, or write a nasty comment at least!

Friday Miscellanea

I find most organs thick and lugubrious sounding, but old Spanish organs have a wonderful crisp and "crunchy" sound that is quite surprising. Here is Tiento de batalla, 5e tono ''Punt baix'' by Juan Cabanilles played on a 1695 organ in the Cathedral of Valencia:

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One of the most interesting pieces in 20th century music also has one of the most interesting "origin" stories. The piece is Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time and the Wall Street Journal chose it recently for its Masterpiece series: Finding Grace in a Grim Setting.
At the first performance on Jan. 15, 1941, in Stalag VIII-A, the prisoners sat mesmerized, shivering in the cold for an hour. “Never before,” wrote the composer, “have I been listened to with such attention and understanding.” Many were actually bewildered by what they heard, yet they grasped that something truly special had occurred. Several had donated money to purchase a used cello from a nearby town for the occasion, a transaction made possible with the aid of the armed guards, who transported the cellist to pick up the instrument. That in itself seemed a minor miracle.
I encourage you to read the whole piece as it offers some information about the composition of the piece that I was unaware of. I have actually been to Görlitz, the site of Stalag VIII-A, though not to the actual camp, the site of which which does not exist any more.

The Masterpiece series, incidentally, is one of the few places in the mass media where you can find reliably interesting discussions of, yes, masterpieces. In a lot of the progressive cultural world any mention of art created by Dead White Europeans has to be accompanied by flagellation and apologies as the writer sets out to deconstruct the very idea of a masterpiece. That's all quite wrong, of course. Every person on earth who has any interest in or regard for the fine arts knows perfectly well that there are masterpieces.

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Ran across this in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 295:
Hearing something new is embarrassing and difficult for the ear; foreign music we do not hear well.
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Via CTV news comes the intriguing statistic that the average person stops seeking out new music by age 28:
A survey by streaming service Deezer found that the average person reaches "musical paralysis" -- when she or he primarily listens to familiar tracks and does not seek out new genres -- at the age of 27 years and 11 months.
Musical discovery peaks nearly three years earlier, with 25-year-olds on average listening to at least 10 new songs per week.
Deezer surveyed 5,000 adults online across Brazil, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Brazilians reached musical paralysis the earliest, at 23 years and two months, while Germans stayed curious the longest, hitting paralysis at 31 years old.
On the other hand, some of us are not all that average.

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Via Slipped Disc comes this list of free access scholarly music journals. There has to be a lot of interesting stuff there.

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Another article about the crisis in music education in the UK: Music education ‘crisis’ laid bare in parliamentary report.
It says: “To date, the target of 75% (90% by 2025) for EBacc take-up has failed to be met by a very long way. Currently the number of students studying the EBacc has plateaued at 38% in state-funded schools. Indeed the number of students passing the EBacc was 16.7% in 2017/2018. And yet this failing policy is causing untold damage to music and many other creative subjects in our schools. And for what?”
The report goes on to argue that the government and Ofsted should take on board a number of recommendations around music education, “in particular as a matter of urgency the EBacc must be reviewed and reformed, and creative subjects, including music, must regain their central role in a broad and balanced curriculum for all of our children”.
The recommendations also include calls that music should be taught by a specialist teacher as part of the curriculum in all state schools for at least one hour every week and that schools have at least one full-time staff member teaching only music.
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In musical circles, Barenboim’s temper is legendary. He has thrown fits because a violist rolled his eyes, because a singer bowed in the wrong place, because a favored principal player was on vacation. He once berated a musician who lacked concentration because someone in their immediate family had died. He has insulted a doctor who said that a performer with a stomach flu was too sick to play. On at least two occasions, he has allegedly grabbed and shaken members of his staff in anger.
Yes, sounds rather dire. But I have a considerable degree of mistrust for all muckraking articles like these that often are nothing more than journalistic malpractice. Are these a few isolated incidents out of a decades-long career of great creativity and good behaviour? Do we forgive great artists for their human flaws? Well, not really. Bad behaviour is bad behaviour and being creative in another part of your life does not get you off the hook. On the other hand, journalism thrives on nasty stories about famous people. But a more insidious issue is why should anyone fear a mere conductor and pianist? Is he going to stab us with his baton? No, the reason people might fear someone like Daniel Barenboim is because of the power he wields. If you need to curry favor with someone because they can make or break your career then they can get away with the arrogant misuse of power. So let's look at how power is wielded in arts institutions.

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Sorry, due to the pressure of other duties today, this will have to be an abbreviated miscellanea. So let's have a nice big envoi. This is Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time in a performance by four excellent players: Richard Stoltzman(cl) Peter Serkin(p) Yo-Yo Ma(vc) Pamela Frank(vn).

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Slow Practicing

I have long advocated slow practicing to my students (and nowadays, to myself!) but what that means exactly needs to be spelled out in some detail, I suspect.

The virtues of slow practicing are widely known and widely practiced. I have been told by people who were there that guitarists like John Williams can be heard before a concert playing through certain repertoire at very slow speeds, perhaps half of the actual tempo. I have been told by orchestral players that they have heard Pepe Romero practicing the Concierto de Aranjuez at one-quarter tempo before a concert. If you have never done this you will be astonished at how much sheer concentration it takes and how much energy.

But just playing the piece at a fraction of the normal tempo is only part of the story. You need to ask yourself why this is a useful technique. The reason you are practicing very slowly is to observe exactly what is going on in both hands. Is there some fixed tension somewhere that you might need to release? Can you improve the right hand attack so as to remove any harsh sounds due to rushing? Are your fingers moving in the most efficient way possible? Do you feel any strain anywhere and can you reduce or remove it? In other words, it is all in how you practice. Frankly, if you practice slowly in a sloppy inattentive manner, you will actually make things worse instead of better! I think that one of the most important factors in good playing is your alertness to what is physically comfortable. You also need to be sensitive to good tone, rhythmic precision and musical phrasing. In the absence of these abilities, I suspect it doesn't matter how slow you practice.

Here is a piece I recorded years ago and I assure you, there was lots of slow, careful practicing beforehand. This is Las Abejas by Barrios:

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Soothing Classical Music

This topic is always a slightly uncomfortable one for me as it involves reconciling how I listen to music with how other people listen to music. Or more accurately, how non-musicians listen to music. Still more accurately, how non-classical musicians listen.

A while back a commentator linked to an article in The Guardian about a new classical station in the UK: Young people are turning to classical music to escape ‘noise of modern life'.
To many, the decision announced last week to launch Scala Radio, a major new station founded on the belief that classical music can appeal to younger audiences, will have come as a surprise. But research has shown clear indications of new listening trends, with almost half (45%) of young people saying they see classical music as an escape from the noise of modern life.
I looked through the rest of the article to see if there were any details about the research, but found nothing specific. I generally distrust journalism because they tend to both follow a predetermined narrative and get the facts wrong. More:
The launch of a new classical entertainment station aimed at younger listeners is based on more than a hunch. Research found that a new generation of listeners was switching on to classical music through different sources, with 48% of under-35s exposed to it through classical versions of popular songs, such as the Brooklyn Duo version of Taylor Swift’s Blank. And 74% of people in the same age group had experienced classical music via a live orchestral performance at a film screening, according to analysts at Insight working for Bauer Media, owner of the new station.
"Research found" is such a weak reed that you can hang almost anything on it. OK, I can believe that a lot of young people have heard "classical versions" of popular songs, but the 74% of young people being exposed to a live orchestra at a film screening seems very odd. Is this a big city thing? Does this happen a lot that an orchestra shows up at a film screening and plays a few tunes? Let's have a listen to the one concrete example, the Brooklyn Duo version of "Blank Space" by Taylor Swift:

And now let's hear the original. (Blogger doesn't want to embed, so follow the link.)

That explains a few odd things about the "classical version." As a piece for cello and piano it is awkward and not very successful. The melody is jerky and uninteresting, largely because it was originally intended to be sung with words and the rhythm is that of speech. This can be interesting, of course, and some Russian theorists, Boris Asaf'yev in particular, had a theory on intonazia that suggests that instrumental music can suggest the moods of vocal rhetoric--music can "speak" in other words. But just transcribing a vocal line for cello without the words does not necessarily make the music speak. Usually it just comes out like something is missing, which it is. Looking at the Taylor Swift original we hear the words and therefore the "meaning" of the music. The song, like so many in the genre, seems to be largely about narcissism and wealth porn. I have to say though, that the cello has a much nicer timbre than the thin, edgy sound of Taylor Swift's voice.

Frankly, I would much rather hear the gritty realism of a good pop song than the smoothed out diluted "classical version." Like in the old Zen saying, not seeing the difference is to mistake the map for the territory. A good pop song is an authentic aesthetic expression. The "classical version" is a watered down remembrance; like a faded postcard from the beach it is not much of an aesthetic experience in itself.

But I am not a normal listener: I don't look to music to soothe me at the end of a long day working in a factory or serving meals or berating employees. Instead, I look to music to take me on an aesthetic journey to new places that offer new experiences. Sure, sometimes I listen to music to take a familiar journey, like returning to Paris or Rome to refresh your experience. Or perhaps it can be like participating in a great conversation or some more intimate act. But while there can be soothing moments, if the whole experience is a soothing refuge, then I'm not interested. I also don't respond well to tranquilizers--they tend to make me anxious!

I think I have always had this kind of relationship with music. I didn't develop an interest in music until I was exposed to some rock music in the middle-60s and it is always the challenging music that has caught my interest. It puzzles me why not everyone shares this interest! Once in university I challenged some friends of mine by making them listen to the whole of the Grosse Fuge by Beethoven. This was in answer to some question or other like: what's your favorite piece of music? At the time it was this one:

Here is a thought experiment for you: why don't the Brooklyn Duo or 2Cellos or any of the other "classical version" ensembles do a version of this piece? There are obvious answers, but also less obvious answers.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

Here is a lovely act of kindness: pianist Paul Barton plays for an old blind elephant who seems to quite enjoy it:

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If you like books, and why wouldn't you, then you have to go over to Abe Books' Weird Book Room for a collection of books that challenge the very notion of weirdness. Most are not music-related, but this one is:

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I would not have believed this was possible! Remember the aria that the blue diva sings in The Fifth Element, the Luc Besson film? The one where a normal soprano voice is carried up to the stratosphere and down to the depths by use of electonics? I don't know the name of the device, but it simply transposes the frequency of a pitch up or down as needed. The music of the first part is from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti then it turns into a rock tune with synthesized voice. Here is the scene from the movie:

So what's not possible? Recreating this with a live soprano with orchestra and rock band. But no, soprano Jane Zhang manages a pretty fair reproduction:

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This article from The Guardian is yet another example of an unfortunate trend: 'Preserved in aspic': opera embarks on diversity drive.
Opera is shockingly white, overly traditional and too slow to change, according to the leader of one of the UK’s leading companies.
Stuart Murphy, the former TV executive who joined English National Opera as its chief executive last spring, made the damning assessment as he announced new measures to tackle its lack of diversity.
That includes positive action to recruit at least four chorus members from a black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) background.
Murphy recalled joining the company and and finding it “really shocking” that 39 of ENO’s 40-strong chorus were white. “We weren’t true to our values, we didn’t represent Britain,” he said. “It just felt strange to me … Young white audiences also think it is weird.”
The story is really one of a collision between two different ideologies. On the one hand there is the progressive ideology, the idea that you identify social flaws or biases and immediately create policies to correct them. Seems perfectly reasonable, right? But it is one of those slippery, dangerous ideas that can easily lead to extremes. The Soviet "new man" starting from zero is a similar idea, as was the idea of wiping history clean in the French Revolution. They even had a new calendar starting from the year zero. I can see exactly how people like Stuart Murphy are envisioning what is needed. There are many non-white people living in the UK, therefore the proportions of non-white people in, for example, the English National Opera should reflect that. But all this depends on you having absolutely no knowledge of nor respect for history. To say that opera is "shockingly white" is disingenuous at least. Opera was the creation of a small group of cultural leaders in Italy in the late 16th century. They were all white, as was the cultural milieu. The fact that this art form has been pursued with great creative energy in Western societies ever since is also not shocking. If we look at the audiences for opera we would likely see that they remain mostly white as well. Opera so far has been largely a white thing. Not shocking at all. Now if you want to add non-white members to the chorus, sure, why not? But do it for musical reasons, not ideological ones. I very strongly suspect that no-one has been blocking the door to persons of color auditioning for the ENO chorus. That would be wrong and likely illegal. But creating a quota for certain minority groups? No reason for that save ideology.

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We can add this one to the annals of technological hubris:

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Slipped Disc mentions the passing away of a very fine Canadian voice teacher, Selena James. I knew her quite well when we were both teachers at the Victoria Conservatory of Music in British Columbia. I actually met her a few years earlier when I was a young guitar student at the university. Selena had a voice student prepping for her graduating recital and decided that the student had just the right sort of voice to do the Songs from the Chinese by Benjamin Britten, written for voice and guitar. This was a radical idea at the time as voice recitals were always, 100%, accompanied by piano. It was the first time I had the opportunity to do some serious chamber or ensemble music as I had only been playing classical guitar for a couple of years. I had to do some really hard work to learn the part. It was a great experience for both of us and entirely due to the breadth of vision of Selena. A remarkable number of outstanding singers came out of her studio as we see in the obituary from the local paper: Selena James, Saanich soprano who guided the stars, was ‘like family to us all’

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Roger Scruton has some interesting things to say about conservatism and the arts: CONSERVATISM AND THE CONSERVATORY. Impossible to summarize, but:
THE OBSERVATION IS OFTEN MADE that political conservatives do not have anything much to say about the arts, either believing, with the libertarians, that in this matter people should be free to do as they please, or else fearing, like the traditionalists, that a policy for the arts will always be captured by the Left and turned into an assault on our inherited values. Of course, there is truth in both those responses; but they are not the whole truth, and in my view one reason for the precarious state of the arts in our public culture today is that conservatives – who often come out near the top in fair elections – have failed to develop a clear cultural policy and to understand why, philosophically, such a policy matters...
For many people music is simply a matter of enjoyment, irrelevant to the greater things in life, and a matter of personal taste with which we cannot argue. John likes hard rock, Mary likes bluegrass, Fred likes hip-hop, Judith likes modern jazz, and so on. Once you enter the realm of classical music, however, you realize that such simple views no longer apply. You are in the presence of a highly learned, highly structured art form, in which human thought, feeling, and posture are explored in elaborate tonal arguments. In learning to play the music of Bach or Beethoven, for example, you are acutely aware that you are being put to the test by the music that you are playing. There is a right and a wrong way to proceed, and the right way involves learning to express, to control, to respond in mature and persuasive ways. You are undergoing an education in emotion, and the skills you learn do not remain confined to your fingers: They penetrate the whole body and brain, to become part of your world.
Moreover, this kind of education is inseparable from the art of judgment. In learning classical music, you are learning to discriminate, to recognize the authentic examples, to distinguish real from fake emotion, and to glimpse both the depths of suffering and the heights of joy of which human beings are capable. Not everyone can excel in this form of education, just as not everyone can be a mathematician, a motor mechanic, or a basketball star. 
If that seems intriguing, then read the whole thing.

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Alex Ross has a new piece in The New Yorker about singer/songwriter Gabriel Kahane, Strangers on a Train: Gabriel Kahane's Wrenching 'Book of Travelers'
Gabriel Kahane, a Brooklynite singer-composer who sways between pop and classical worlds, has taken the concept of the concept album to rarefied heights. For his record “The Ambassador,” released in 2014, he created a suite of songs inspired by various buildings in Los Angeles, the title track paying tribute to the venerable hotel where Robert F. Kennedy was shot. In “Book of Travelers,” which Nonesuch issued last year, Kahane recounts an adventure he undertook in November, 2016: the day after the Presidential election, he boarded the Lake Shore Limited out of New York and racked up almost nine thousand miles riding trains across the country, talking to fellow-passengers and making songs from the stories that he heard.
Here is a song from the album:

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I think the right envoi for today would be the "Unfinished Symphony" of Franz Schubert in a performance by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Riccardo Muti. Incidentally, the name of the symphony is in quotation marks because it is just a nickname. There is no evidence that reveals why Schubert only wrote two movements (there is a third, a scherzo, complete in piano score, but with just a small part orchestrated). He wrote so much music in his short life that it is easy to imagine him stopping work on this piece and taking up some other project and just never getting back to it. Hey, if you look on my hard drive you will see many brief fragments that I never got around to turning into complete pieces. These two movements are so ravishing that many have wished that he had found the time to finish it.