In 1961, when I moved from L.A. to the San Francisco Bay Area to attend U.C. Berkeley, I knew that the great virtuoso pianist Egon Petri lived nearby; I learned this from the liner notes on his recording of the late Beethoven piano sonatas, a recording that initiated me into hearing these works. Petri lived in Oakland, the border of which was located a few miles south of the university. Still seventeen years old, I looked up his phone number, called, and talked my way into a meeting. So it was that in October, I took the bus from campus to a stop near his apartment.
I met Petri twice. During the first session, we (and mostly he) talked – about music, about my studies and hopes, about his life and health, but mainly about music – about his teacher Busoni’s Bach transcriptions, about Busoni’s “objective” tone when he played Beethoven’s late sonatas. [Here is an Amazon.com link to Petri’s remarkable 1954 recording of those sonatas: http://www.amazon.com/Beethoven-Sonatas-Egon-Petri-Recital/dp/B00005Q636/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1296339508&sr=1-1 ]
Only at the end of this first session did he have me sit down at the piano and play – “whatever piece you would like.” It was a case of ‘where angels fear to tread.’ Naïve and oblivious, I started playing for this master of Beethoven’s art the opening of Beethoven’s opus 111. [here is a YouTube link to Rudolf Serkin’s great performance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qs-Jn13FOIg&noredirect=1 ] After the opening Maestoso and a half page further, he interrupted me. “Yes, I see,” he said. “Now please play the opening of the Arietta.” And so I began playing the slow first page of this second movement, the last one of all of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, his valedicory to a form of which he was the foremost practitioner. At the end of the page, he interrupted me and said. “Your playing, it is very sensitive, very musical. But your technique! Primitive! You will need to work very hard.”
Petri was short, bald, a little stooped, but his wide eyes were full of wit and humor. He lived with his daughter and wife, and I heard sounds of them several rooms away. At the end of the hour, he invited me back in two weeks. In that session, we returned to opus 111, but this time he sat at the piano and showed me how to resolve some of technical problems I had struggled with – what pattern to notice, how to finger it, how to hold the hand to play it – for page after page. Then he put the book of Chopin’s Etudes on the piano rack and showed me how, in the Winter Wind etude, Chopin adapts some of the opus 111 patterns and harmonies, but without Beethoven’s brilliant structural innovation – the movement of harmony let alone the growth of motifs.
I did not see Petri again. At the end of the second session, he told me his health was weakening further, and he was going to live for a while down the California coast. He died a few months later. I felt (yet kept the realization at bay) how rare and valuable was the time I had spent with Petri; he embodied the searching spirit and intellectual acuity of a European sensibility that was dying even as I was growing into the 1960s, and that realization that death was part of this legacy was what I kept at arm’s length – not only Petri’s own closeness to death but also that twentieth century Europe had put to death many intellectuals along with all the rest. Yet I had kept persevering – contacting Petri, opening to him, learning what I could from him.
Just before I left his apartment, he handed me a note with the name and phone number of one of his favorite pupils, Julian White, from whom I took lessons for the next four years. “A fine pianist and a great teacher,” Petri said, gnomish, wide eyed, and he squeezed my hand. “You will learn very much from him.” And I did.
My newly completed novel is The Fall of the Berlin Wall, about what happened to characters from my Hungry Generations fifteen years later; it's about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist at the center of the previous novel. My 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Monday, October 10, 2011
I’d like to try to develop the idea of the “sound world” a composer creates and inhabits – and which we listeners are privileged to inhabit with him or her. In the first posts, I'll try to establish how I was initiated into the sounds of classical music and particularly Beethoven. My parents were devoted to classical music. My father played the violin, and there were frequent “quartet evenings” at our house, during which he played second violin, for the most part. Undoubtedly, I heard his quartet play some Beethoven during my childhood, though it was not until I was a teenager that I clearly recollect hearing him play some of the opus 18 quartets. My mother played the piano, and the Beethoven sonata she turned to most often was the early opus 7 (again, I clearly remember her performance only when I was a teenager).
There were several record players in the house, and undoubtedly the sound of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and his other symphonies must have filled the house. (I certainly remember opera emanating from the Girard in my brother David’s room, starting when he was 13 and I was 8; there were choral sounds – perhaps the “Ode to Joy” movement of the Ninth, probably the recording by Toscanini, who obsessed the family – emerging from my 16-year-old brother Philip’s room at the other end of the upstairs hall.) The Melnick household was turbulent and confusing for an eight year old, and though I loved the presence of music there, it was difficult to concentrate and fully absorb it, given my spry, distracted disposition as well as my circumstances (in which adolescents and adults would act like children, even as the child was made to witness and experience adult intensities).During the year I was 8, then (that would be 1951-2), there were piano lessons I took, which taught me not much beyond the basics. At the age of 11, lessons were resumed, and I began playing simple Haydn minuets, Clementi’s easier sonatas, etc. It was not until I was 14 that I initiated resuming lessons and began truly exploring the keyboard music of Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. By then, my brothers had moved out of the house, and things were a bit more stable; I lived with my parents in West Los Angeles, and then in 1958 we moved to the northeast corner of the San Fernando Valley, a block from the V.A. hospital where my physician father worked. During the next three years from the age of 14 to 17, when I went away to college, my love of music fully flowered.
A German-Jewish émigré drove from Brentwood in West L.A. through the Valley to our remote Sylmar home to give me weekly lessons. Mr. Schumann assigned me typical fare: Bach Inventions and then a Partita, Mozart sonatas, the Scenes of Childhood by Schumann (no relation), and of course some Beethoven sonatas – first the easy opus 49 sonatas and then opus 90, not hard but not easy. More important than his assignments and instruction (comprised of encouraging advice mostly about interpretation rather than technique), Mr. Schumann loved to play the piano for me, so during the last twenty minutes of each session, he would fill our suburban tract home with music – above all, Beethoven. He was preparing the Waldstein sonata, opus 53, to play in recital, and at the end of several lessons I heard him perform the wonderful pulse and whir of the sonata’s repetitions – its pulsing chords and whirring arpeggios and continually unfolding melodic motifs. These mini-recitals, with my sitting to one side of him and turning pages, constituted a crucial education for me.Also, in these years, I finally had my own small portable record player. I particularly remember receiving individual records discarded by my older brother Philip, whose record collection burgeoned with new boxed sets. Among the LPs were recordings of Klemperer (the cover photo showing one half of his face bright and benign, the other shadowed and sinister) conducting the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, Szell conducting Schubert’s “Great” Symphony, Schnabel playing Schubert’s last piano sonata, and much else. I was particularly stirred by the record of Egon Petri playing Beethoven’s last three sonatas. The LP prompted me to work through those compositions time after time – I played them at a slower than indicated pace, but at whatever tempo they gave me great pleasure. Petri’s record educated me about what I would later want to call Beethoven’s organic form – his capacity to shape motifs so that they constantly grew, even as they contributed their energy to the encompassing arc of a movement’s structure. I came finally to understand the nature and power of form – whether sonata, variation, fugue, aria, or dance.