What's In a Note?
While we've been engrossed in the trials and tribulations of Whitey Bulger and Alex Rodriguez — all right, while I've been engrossed — a quieter conflict has been playing out in the crazy, contentious world of classical music. "Another classical controversy?" you might fairly ask. "How small are the stakes this time?" Well, this time the stakes are about as small as you can get: One note.
It's a nice note, too, from one of classical music's all-time hits, though I doubt you've ever given it much notice. It appears five measures into the second movement of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 — you know, the piece that made Van Cliburn famous, spawned the pop hit "Tonight We Love," and has provided a vehicle for seemingly every hotshot young piano virtuoso of the past generation. Anyhow, there it is in the illustration above, the third note of the flute solo that introduces the movement's principal melody. Except — and here's where the fun starts — the flute plays the melody slightly differently than the way it goes in each subsequent reappearance. Let's listen. The notorious note is in the flute, 30 seconds in; contrast that with the third note of the melody in the piano entrance at 1:01.
Hear the difference? For that third note, the flute moves one step up from E-flat to F natural, whereas the piano leaps up from the same E-flat to a B-flat, whence to fall to the A-flat that concludes the phrase. OK, so no big deal...except, when you listen to it again and again, it does really start to stick out, doesn't it? Why would a great composer like Tchaikovsky write the melody one way the first time, and then write another way each time thereafter? Did he really mean it that way, or was it a one-time copying mistake that has wrongly become the norm? Many musicians, going back almost the beginning of the Concerto's performing history, have wondered the same things, among them Stephen Hough, the outstanding British pianist, composer, writer and MacArthur Grant recipient whose performances you hear frequently on NEPR. And on his blog at England's Telegraph newspaper, Hough claims to have made the "exciting discovery" that he's been right all along. Check it out here, and don't miss the update at the bottom. Proof positive, right?
Not so fast, says Kirill Gerstein, the Russian-born pianist who now lives in the U.S. and Germany, and who's playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto in the U.S. this fall. Here's his rebuttal in the New York Review of Books. I'll leave it to smarter and better-informed people than me to decide which pianist makes the stronger case. What intrigues me is the value each musician places on this note, be it an F or a B-flat, and the different reasons each has for wanting his note to be the right note.
For Hough, the offending F sticks in his craw for solidly musical reasons. To quote:
- The theme appears numerous times and only once with the 'F'. No logical explanation for this.
- The shape of the 4-bar theme is a 5th up and a 5th down – symmetrical and elegant. The 'F' spoils this.
- If the accompaniment were not pizzicato but held string notes we would hear the horrid clash of 'G flat' and 'F' on the last quaver beat. This is bad harmony (especially how it resolves to the octave) and Tchaikovsky was too good a craftsman to have let this pass.
- When, in the coda, there is a change to two 'A flats' there is a change from the pattern – so much more touching if all the other times it has reached up to the 'B flat'.
Gerstein, on the other hand, finds emotional resonance in the F's oddness:
I think this F is a charming anomaly, an instance of inexplicable compositional inspiration and lovely asymmetry that greatness often displays. I feel moved when I hear this alternation between the tender innocence of the F and the heightened expressivity of the following B-flat.
Later, Gerstein invests the note with even greater significance:
To me, the lovely, asymmetrical F is redolent of the unpaved country roads of Tchaikovsky’s Russia. The symmetrical repetition of the B-flat, on the other hand, suggests the cultivated cities of von Bülow’s Europe.
You get the idea that there's more going on here than just the difference between an F and a B-flat, don't you? As was true about other musical feuds, whether between the French and Italian opera styles in the "Querelle des Bouffons" of the 1740's, or between the beboppers and the "Moldy Figs" in the jazz wars of the 1940's, a deeper conflict obviously lies beneath the argument about the one true way to do the music in question. For Stephen Hough, the F is an affront to his sense of symmetry and order. For Kirill Gerstein, the F is a symbol of his Russianness. Question the note, and you question his entire culture. Does that remind you of some more momentous conflicts now playing out on the larger world stage?