Okay, first thing you have to know is, I’m a Mozart man. There seems to be this weird dichotomy in classical music whereby if you love one, you can’t love the other. If you like Mozart, Beethoven is too much shallow sturm und drang for you, too much cheap roaring noise, the kind you can buy in a dime store for…well, a dime. If you like Beethoven, Mozart is basically a sausage-slurping pussy, someone who was too overly concerned with being all delicate and prissy and light to ever yield to the more extreme passions that Beethoven gave that big fat green light to. Mozart was First, Beethoven was New and Improved. Beethoven is Man, Mozart is Child. But the people who think this are assholes, and they’re way too concerned about what their choice of music says about themselves than they are to consider the music on its own merits. So say I, a rock and roll moron.
Beethoven is a rocket to Mars (the God O’ War planet, by the way, and not for nothing do I make that comment), and Mozart is a finely-tuned Ferrari. Beethoven is all brute strength and power and anger and the sweetness of purest blistering rage, and Mozart is every good thing that God ever made, with all the warmth and achy longing and bittersweet feeling that God intended when he cursed us Men with Women. Beethoven is how pissed off we Men are about it, rutting viciously with that universal blind confusion that wonders why we’re made to suffer so. Mozart is the part of us that says, “Ahh, but it’s so wonderful to hear them when they’re lost in the pure moment of passion; their sighs, their moans, their ecstasy.” Beethoven spurts violently, all over her; Mozart saves it for later, after she gets hers, which every good Mozart lover knows is the best part. And then Mozart cleans up and sleeps on the wet spot.
Then there’s the Emperor Concerto.
I just downloaded my first piece of music from the iTunes Music Store, and it was the Emperor Concerto. Played by Van Cliburn with the Chicago Symphony, it’s a fairly well-known and well-regarded recording. I’m something of a Van Cliburn fan anyway. A little something about the man, for those of you who don’t know him:
Krushchev had just come into power on the heels of one of the most repressive regimes the world had ever known. This was the same Krushchev who would be remembered by most Americans as the roly-poly Soviet leader who would bang his shoe on the UN table and threaten, “We will bury you!”
In the United States, this period followed the McCarthy Senate Hearings where anybody with the slightest, or even imagined, affiliation with communism was branded as subversive. To complicate matters, a few months prior to the Competition, on October 10, 1957, the Soviets had shocked the world by launching Sputnik, the first man-made satellite ever to orbit the earth. Americans had been beaten in the race to space. It was a devastating psychological blow. Sputnik symbolized the technological superiority of a totalitarian government. Even more frightening was the possibility that such rockets could carry atomic bombs. Americans feared communism would soon take over the world.
Enter 23-year-old Van Cliburn, child prodigy pianist from Kilgore, Texas. Cliburn was quite oblivious to the intrigues and posturings of international and military politics. Looking back, he’ll admit to the fact that it “wasn’t the friendliest of times between our nations.”
But since it was the first international piano competition ever to be held in the Soviet Union, and so rare for Americans to get the chance to travel there, Cliburn wanted to go. “I didn’t see life in the present,” Cliburn admits. “I was remembering the wonderful stories of the grandeur of the Russian musical life from the past that my mother had told me.” Cliburn’s mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan, had been her son’s only piano teacher and mentor from the time he was three until he entered Juilliard School at 17. An extraordinary pianist with unimpeachable musical credentials, she had grown up in a period of time when it was “not proper for a young lady from a good family to concertize.” Fortunately, for many young people, she channeled her energies into teaching. She had studied in New York with the famous Arthur Freidheim, who had been born in St. Petersburg, and who, in turn, had studied with great pianists like Anton Rubinstein and later Franz Liszt.
Perhaps, it was Van’s naiveté that served him so well. The Soviets detected his openness, spontaneity, and genuineness. They responded to his musical interpretations, many pieces of which had been composed by their own masters.
For the celebrated “masses” who chanced to hear Cliburn play one of the first live concerts ever televised nationwide throughout the USSR, he somehow didn’t fit the stereotype of an “evil capitalist”. For many, it was the first time they had ever seen an American, and they embraced him wholeheartedly.
Fifty contestants from more than 19 countries took part in the competition which demanded three performances in front of a jury that was composed of some of the finest musicians ever gathered, including pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels (Jury Chair and first Soviet musician to perform in the U.S.); Lev Oborin; Dmitry Kabalevsky (Composer); Sir Arthur Bliss (Master of the Queen’s Music from England); and others. The General Chairman for the entire competition (piano and violin) was the renowned symphonic composer and conductor, Dmitry Shostakovich.
Actually, Van Cliburn’s virtuosity turned out to be rather embarrassing for the Soviet jurists. Some had already selected Lev Vlasenko, a Russian pianist, as the winner. Cliburn presented a dilemma. No one was quite sure how Khruschev would respond to a foreigner, especially an American, winning the Grand Prize of the very first Tchaikovsky Competition.
It has since been discovered that some of the jurists, fearing Khruschev’s indignation, were boycotting Cliburn despite his brilliant performances. On a scale of 0-25, some gave him scores of 15s, 16s and 19s and added one or two points more for other participants-just a slight enough difference to make no one suspicious that anything illegal was taking place. Richter and a few others sensed what was happening and they set out to distort the scheme by giving Van the highest scores possible, perfect 25s. In the meantime, Richter gave twelve of the contestants zeros, even though some of them were quite good. When confronted by the head of the jury for his idiosyncratic voting patterns, Richter replied, “People either make music, or they don’t.”
By the time Cliburn was scheduled to play his third and final round in the competition, all tickets were sold out. There wasn’t even standing room. Like all participants, he had to perform concertos by both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. He chose Tchaikovsky’s No. 1 in B-flat Minor, and Rachmaninoff’s No. 3 in D-Minor. The orchestra was conducted by Kiril Kondrashin of whom Cliburn sings only the highest praises: “He was one of the most fabulous conductors that Russia ever produced.
After Van finished playing, the Hall burst into applause! Everything backstage was in absolute confusion. “There was a rule that after you had taken your bow and left the stage, you could never return again.” But the ovation continued for eight and a half minutes. “Suddenly, I saw Gilels coming towards me,” Van recalls. “He took me by the hand and led me back on stage where he embraced me publicly. The year before, I had heard this brilliant pianist play at Carnegie Hall and had admired him immensely, so his extraordinary public gesture overwhelmed me. He saw the jurists giving him a standing ovation and also was able to distinguish Khruschev’s daughter and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium up in the Officials’ Boxes. “It was such a thrilling moment.” But the competition wasn’t over. Several finalists had still not performed.
It became clear to Gilels that the only thing he could do about this Cliburn phenomenon was to approach Khruschev directly about the Prize and let him make the decision. So together with the Minister of Culture, Ekaterina Furtsava, they sought Khruschev’s opinion. “Well, what are the professionals saying?” Khruschev wanted to know. “Is Cliburn the best?” They avowed that he was.”Then, in that case,” concluded the Communist Party Chief, “give him the Prize!”
23 years old. Twenty fucking three. At twenty three, I was still asking my mom what was for dinner, and not eating if she didn’t feel like cooking that night. My God. At twenty three, I still had schoolbooks and “sweethearts.” But then again, I lived a fairly sheltered life. Up to a point, and then suddenly all hell broke loose. Right around twenty three, if I remember right.
Van Cliburn went on to tour relentlessly, pretty much nonstop until 1978, and to be forgotten, as all real musicians are, sooner rather than later. He worked tirelessly to promote classical music, to establish educational foundations and competitions for young students, to just generally elevate us all. He seems to get more derision than respect these days, and I will never understand that. Nor do I want to, frankly. Not in an age where “music” means “ripped off guitar and drum tracks with monotonous dirty limericks recited over ’em.” Not in an age where…well, that’s a whole other rant, and maybe I’ll get to it someday.
BUT…the Emperor. Van Cliburn plays it wonderfully. His piano and the orchestra work together as few I’ve ever heard do, achieving a rare unity, a totality that defies description. The famed transition between the Adagio and the Allegro is so tight it fairly squeaks when it moves. And it does nothing but move. The Adagio itself is simply heartbreaking, in that beautiful, crying way that none but Mozart could really pull off. And of course Beethoven, just this once.
The Allegro is so joyous that it’s all I can do to keep from jumping up, tears still wet on my face from the Adagio, and shaking the stiffest….fist…..you ever saw at the world, and defying any three of you punk-ass bitches to say a fucking word about it. It is just brilliant, that’s all. If your heart doesn’t practically leap out of your chest on hearing it, you need to check your heart, pal. Or have it done for you; most likely, you’re all but dead and can’t do it yourself.
Mozart plumbs the deepest depths and scales the highest peaks of human emotion, and does it all so effortlessly and routinely it’s like watching the guy at Jiffy Lube change your oil. It’s so easy for him it almost means nothing. But that, of course, means everything.
When Beethoven gets it, boy, does he get it. He nails it so completely you can feel those rusty iron pins going through your very feet, nailing you to the eternal bloody cross. And with Cliburn on the keys, well, the agony is just that much sweeter.
And to those of you who can’t see the connection between all this and my usual rock and roll boogie-woogie persona, well, I pity you.
(Also posted at Blogcritics)