Saturday, July 18, 2015

Too Many Notes?

There is a famous scene in Amadeus, the movie based on the life of Mozart, where the Emperor congratulates the composer backstage after the successful premiere of an opera. Excellent work, he avers, but there were just too many notes:


While the movie is a good effort, well, decidedly that, the characterization of Mozart is rather off at times, such as here where Tom Hulce begins by doing his Sally Fields impression: "you like me, you really like me!" And ends by directly contradicting the emperor, something a tad unlikely.

Ironically, while the real Mozart, as opposed to Haydn, luxuriated in a wealth of themes in his music, you really couldn't accuse him of writing too many notes. That honor should be reserved for people like Jan Ladislav Dussek, who was famous for never writing one note where he could write a dozen. He was an influence on the later composer/pianist Franz Liszt who also excelled at excess.

Let's have some examples. First of all some piano music by Mozart. This is the Piano Sonata No 16 C major, K 545, played by Daniel Barenboim:


Now for some Dussek. This is the first movement of the Sonata op. 75 in E flat major, but we are not told who the performer is:



At first you might think it sounds a lot like the Mozart and they do share the same musical vocabulary. But as the music progresses I think you might notice the redundant octaves, the fortes and the repetition just for the sake of repetition. Dussek tends to just overdo everything. But for the real specialist in too many notes we have to turn to Liszt. Here is his Transcendental Etude No. 4:


Apologies to all the pianists out there, but the piano seems to specialize in wretched excess, probably because it is a very cleverly designed mechanism for producing the greatest number of notes with the least effort. Though there are quite a few examples for the guitar as well! Of course, the great composers did not fall into the trap of writing "too many notes" but just the right number. This is the Haydn Piano Sonata nº 59 in E flat, Hob. XVI:49 played by Alfred Brendel:


8 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

So if Dussek was the first to sit with his profile visible to the audience (per Wikipedia; 'le beau visage' seems fairly unbelievable based on the portraits but...), how were pianos and their players arranged before: with the pianist facing the audience? or with his back to the audience?

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, he was not an attractive man, was he? I haven't thought about it before, but I wonder if previous harpsichordists and pianists might have sat with their backs to the audience. Then they could see the hands on the keyboard. But just speculating...

Marc Puckett said...

I enjoyed listening to the Dussek but I think I see your point about the excessiveness. Listened to his 'melodious études'; they're sweet and pretty and I'd rather listen to them than Outkast but they're not in the same league as Chopin's or even Alkan's.

Marc Puckett said...

Of course I'm no judge! the height of my performing career was Chopin's prélude no 20....

Nathan Shirley said...

Yes, back to audience would have been typical. Keyboardists often conducted while they played, and needed to be facing the other musicians.

Nathan Shirley said...

Yes, back to audience would have been typical. Keyboardists often conducted while they played, and needed to be facing the other musicians.

Marc Puckett said...

I'll have to look to YouTube and see if there are any contemporaries who do that?

Bryan Townsend said...

There is a picture in today's post that answers the historical question.