D. 960

At age 8: In my teacher’s studio were grainy, gray-ish busts of composers, all with the same mineral taste when I licked them. Schubert became differentiated from the others when I listened to the “Unfinished” Symphony, its music heavenly and mysterious. Unfinished why? Did he run out of ideas?

At 9: I learned the A-flat Impromptu, and my clunky performance was preserved on a home-cut record. (My teacher was an early adopter of audio gear.)

At 12: I heard a recording of Schubert’s last piano sonata, in B-flat, number 960 in the Deutsch chronology. It was beyond me; but something fascinated me about all last works, whether absolutely the composers’ last, or last for piano. From “ultimate” in numbering, romantic me infers ultimate in meaning. Don’t many of us imagine that “lastness” hides a fastness, a cache of significance? And if learning is effortful for us, as it is for me, this helps make it worthwhile. So, like Beethoven’s sonatas Opp. 109, 110, 111, Schubert’s D. 958, 959, 960, acquire a magnetic attraction.

At 18: By now I had read Jean-Christophe, by Romain Rolland; and Thomas Wolfe’s novels and stories. At music camp, impressed by my teacher’s love of D. 960, I learned the first movement in a week, and played it at my next lesson. Mr. Harris said, “Very good, pal. What else did you bring?” I exclaimed, “What else? I practiced that five hours a day!” I’d been so proud of learning 20 minutes of music so quickly, and now realized I’d learned too little too slowly.

“Five hours?” Henry Harris was honestly puzzled. “What could you do for five hours a day?” He pointed to the pianissimo bass trill on the first page. “You might practice this five minutes a day. And”–turning pages, poking another spot–“this is hard. You could spend 10 minutes a day on this.” Continuing through the movement, he justified 30 minutes of daily practice. This was dizzying to me; inconceivable; and gradually I realized what was missing from his calculation: the time needed to learn the notes–because for him, that didn’t take time!

He was far beyond me in reading and remembering. But as I tried to imitate him, I learned that some of these abilities will appear just for the wanting. If one’s never had a concept of quick learning, some progress will occur merely by acquiring the idea.

At our next lesson, he chided me, “I hear you around Camp, pal. You’re not practicing, you’re playing for people.” (This last was accompanied by a look of distaste.) “Playing isn’t practicing, chum.” Now that was a difference between us: playing for people was essential to my learning process.

At 20: Studying with Gregory Tucker at Longy School, I learned D. 960 to the point just short of performance, then told Mr. Tucker I was going to drop it. I was OK with the 2nd, 3d and 4th movements, I said, but not comfortable with the “spaciousness” of the first movement. He smiled and told me he understood. On my recital that year, the major piece instead was Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” I needed to understand Schubert better.

So I learned other Schubert works:

Multiple times at various ages, I played the Moments Musicaux, D. 780; A minor sonata, D. 784; Impromptus, D. 899. and the “little” A major sonata, D. 664.

At 39: “Die Schöne Müllerin,” D. 795, with my friend, tenor Jeff Greif.

At 42: “Winterreise,” D. 911, also with Jeff.

Through these works, especially the songs, I became familiar with Schubert’s expressiveness; his leisurely quality that morphs to urgency in an instant; his magical harmonic changes, and the endlessly interesting ways he fills the gaps between them. His flexible phrasing—you hardly notice his five-bar phrases. The sonorities that “hang from the top”; and his use of the harmonic series to drive the action.

I had a gratifying moment in working on the Moments Musicaux with Leonid Hambro. He made three suggestions about No. 3, and I asked to be excused from trying to integrate them on the spot; to wait till the next lesson. When that time came, I integrated his suggestions but also included other changes; and was pleased when he exclaimed, “You are very unusual! You understand what an interpretation is! Most people don’t!” (This had long been my secret conviction.) “You understood that if you changed what I suggested, you had to make the other changes, too!”

Thus, over a 35-year period, I studied and re-studied D. 960; and once I was at Caltech (from age 30), discussed it with my Wednesday afternoon group, whose questions, suggestions, comments and objections did me a lot of good.

Age 55: Finally finding myself comfortable with D. 960, I played it on my 25th anniversary concert at Caltech; and it went well. A good first performance. A lady said, “The second movement took me up to heaven.”

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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