I know, I was dreadful about keeping this blog updated for the last half of the trip, and I never posted a coda to round everything off. I’m now back in Hanover for the Sophomore Summer (Dartmouth’s required summer term), taking physiology, conducting, and Caribbean lit, working at the medical center, writing grant proposals for research in the fall, cooking dinner with friends, reading out on the Green, swimming in the CT River (the docks are open again!) and generally having a blast.
I’ve wanted to actually conclude this part of my blog for a while, though, and I thought you all might be interested in reading my final reflection paper – for having written most of it at 4am the night before it was due (we had a paper-writing party in the girls’ apartment), it says much of what I wanted to say about Vienna and music and the people I found there. I’ve also wanted to post more photos, but my hard drive crashed a few days after I came home (sob!), and I haven’t yet managed to recover anything (my iTunes library!!)
Thanks so much for sticking with me and reading along, however erratically I posted. Love and hugs to all of you!
Music makes me happier than anything else in the world. This I have known since high school, which was filled with youth orchestra concerts and state festivals and band trips to Symphony Hall and Kitara Hall. Vienna has become home, not because of the city or our two little flats tucked in the fifth district, but because only here can one see more advertisements for concerts than for clothes, because every concert hall has been more filled than empty every night, because Stehplatzraum is always filled with eccentrics of every kind: students who remove their shoes and following along with scores, elderly people who bob their head and smile with their eyes closed, the occasional hipster assuming lotus position while listening. I am happier this term, surrounded by music and creativity and passion, than I have been in the last year and a half. For that reason alone, I am thankful for the opportunity to live, eat, sleep, and breathe music for the last two months. Beyond happiness, though, I have learned more about music and about myself in the last two months than I dreamed possible.
I am not a particularly creative person. I cannot draw or paint, I do not write stories or poetry, I do not compose or write songs. I prefer the stories of others – novels, art museums, concerts. That way of thinking made me good at school for most of my life – a teacher would ask me to learn the process of writing a five-paragraph essay or simplifying an algebraic equation, and I would learn it, regurgitate it, and get an A. I learned music in a similar manner. Take a piece, learn fingerings and rhythms, add a bit of spice, perform it. In high school, I had a teacher who asked me how I wanted the piece to sound and wanted me to tell my own story with the music. I struggled with the idea – I still do – but the notion that I have my own stories to tell, my own art to create, is becoming increasingly important.
Music has become a creative process for me. Listening to music, playing music, studying music, writing music – it all requires an innovative way of thinking; it requires being daring enough to take a chance. The performances I loved most here in Vienna were those in which the musicians had the confidence to take a creative risk. The end result was all the more powerful and beautiful because they allowed their humanity to influence their playing. I have started to learn this kind of creative confidence here in Vienna.
In her lecture in Budapest, Zita Pandi explained Zoltán Kodály’s method of teaching music. Kodály believed that in order to truly understand and appreciate music, one had to educate one’s hearing, hands, mind, and heart. With knowledge comes confidence, both in understanding what one knows and what one does not know. This FSP has not just educated my hearing, hands, mind, and heart; it has torn apart previous ideas about music, beauty, creativity, and my own strength and ability as a musician. It has given me a place, given me a reason for musical passion.
My favorite part of Music 20 last fall was analyzing the first movement of Beethoven’s First Symphony. After a term learning about secondary dominants and augmented sixths, I learned how to put that theoretical knowledge to practical use, an extremely important skill to develop. Our analysis efforts here, working through the first movement of Schubert’s Fourth Symphony and describing landmarks in a Haydn trio and in Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, put that theoretical knowledge in an aural setting.
While I still cannot identify chord progressions and modulations based on listening alone, our theory exercises informed how I listened to these concerts. Instead of grasping at straws and guessing at possible themes and forms, I had concrete landmarks for which to listen. Moreover, I could translate my newfound listening confidence to pieces I had not yet analyzed; in one of the modern music concerts, a genre with which I had no experience previous to this trip, I noticed a return of the opening material in what I thought might be a recapitulation, and thus an indication of sonata form.
My listening skills are far from perfect, but I am more secure in my capability to orient myself within a piece. After our conversations in class about Haydn’s defining characteristics (e.g. interruptions and changing tonalities), I am also more secure in my capability to distinguish between composers and orient myself within a time period. On the other hand, I also have a better sense of what my listening weaknesses are. In order to strengthen my hearing ability, I turned to Beethoven’s towering Fifth Symphony.
After every February concert, my youth orchestra would sightread Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for one rehearsal, just for fun. Our conductor used to say that the piece was so overplayed that we would likely never have the chance to play it in concert. As it turned out, the DSO played Beethoven’s Fifth my first term at Dartmouth, so I have had the chance to play both violin parts and the first bassoon part, not to mention hearing it dozens of times on the radio.
Even after all of this exposure, though, I did not have the vocabulary to talk intelligently about the famed symphony. After Steve’s challenge to learn the Fifth well enough to be able to defend its place in history, I took it upon myself to purchase a score and start working through the symphony, particularly to follow along with the score as I listened to a recording and then to the San Francisco Symphony’s live rendition a few days later.
Interestingly, my listening experience was much more involved with the score than without, as at many other concerts. Instead of concentrating on the action and movement of the piece, I could focus more on Michael Tilson Thomas’ interpretation of the symphony and come to an informed conclusion. Because the symphony is so famous, because audience members have heard countless versions by countless orchestras and conductors, a new interpretation has to be exciting, thrilling, and passionate. The San Francisco Symphony sounded nice. They played well, but not amazingly well; their Beethoven Five sounded good, not incredible. I did not feel that they told a story or communicated much emotion with Beethoven’s Fifth, and I wondered at certain tempo choices and stylistic choices, such as preserving the bassoon-only fanfare instead of including horns. Never before this trip have I sat through a concert by a professional orchestra and criticized its performance. I directly attribute my ability to do so to a more complete understanding of the inner workings of the piece and a more refined sense of hearing.
I had a similar listening experience with Liszt’s Eine Faust-Symphonie. I had played the symphony with George Ogata and the MIT Summer Philharmonic Orchestra (MITSPO) last summer, but returning to the symphony with a new set of ears almost a year later was a completely different experience. For the first time, I consciously noted Liszt’s theme developments and understood the story he portrayed – of Faust, arrogant and proud, yet full of doubt; of Gretchen, his innocent love; of the wicked, corrosive brilliance of Mephistopheles, destroying Faust from the inside. I perched on the edge of my seat for the entire seventy-minute symphony, listening to this incredible drama unfold before me, thoroughly engaged, thoroughly enthralled by the complexity and visceral nature of the harmonies and themes twisting around. I left the Konzerthaus absolutely beaming.
My listening skills have improved dramatically over the course of the last ten weeks. After almost forty concerts and operas and countless hours of conversation about pieces and performances, I can hear music in a way I never before have, and I have gained the confidence to trust my ears.
Creativity takes courage. It takes confidence; it takes personal strength and a degree of reckless abandon, faith in oneself, faith in the music. It also takes hours of practice and strong hands. My first lesson with Barbara Gorzynska was eye opening and absolutely terrifying. “Well,” she said, thick Polish accent lilting her words, “well, you are not very good. But we will have fun, no?” By the end of the lesson, she had thankfully amended her judgment of my playing ability: “You know, you are not bad for an American. You can play.” From day one, I could tell that lessons with Barbara would be like nothing I had ever experienced.
That first lesson, Barbara gave me pages upon pages of music: Kreisler’s Liebesfreud, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Hindu Lied, a few etudes, dozens of scales and arpeggios… On top of all this – already more than I would normally tackle in a term – she added Bach’s towering Chaconne, “just to read, for fun,” and promised a Paganini caprice the following week.
Paganini? I had never dared. Paganini, in my opinion, was reserved for the uppermost echelons of violinists, the technically gifted, the musicians who spent hours holed up in practice rooms and emerged with quarter-sized violin hickeys tucked under their jawbones. I am not one of those violinists. I have never had a violin hickey, much as I wanted that badge of honor when I was younger.
Over the course of the last two months, though, Barbara has been changing my mind about Paganini and about my own efforts as a violinist. Every time I trip over my fingers or screech through intonation, she stops me: “You doubt! Why you doubt? This is easy, you can play this!” Every time I come across those octave double stops, I flinch inwardly, and then muster up every ounce of courage and self-confidence to play strongly and audaciously.
Barbara has pushed my playing more than any other teacher before. I leave every single lesson exhausted, fingers blackened and indented. I have calluses on my fingertips and a worn nail on my right thumb. My style of playing has changed: instead of a heavy right hand and a meek left hand, I now play with decided fingers and a weightless bow grip. Instead of cursing octaves and avoiding double stops and fast runs, I embrace them. I practice scales and arpeggios for fun, delighting in watching my fingers dance around the fingerboard, beaming when a set of chords finally rings in tune.
I also started paying more attention to violinists’ techniques in concerts. Early in the term, I distantly admired how effortless they sounded, but as time went on, I found myself analyzing their movements, everything from large arm movements to their knuckle flexibility, from how much bow they used to how energetically their fingers leaped up and down. At Mahler’s First Symphony on April 7, I marveled at how soft the string section could play and wondered how they managed such subtlety; by April 19, at Gounod’s Faust, I was hanging over the balcony to see where the concertmaster placed his bow during his solo, how he managed to create such a delicate sound so high on the E string. I began looking for a sound and a technique to mimic, and I surprised myself with how critical I became: Hilary Hahn sounded too polite, Gidon Kremer’s rendition of the Schumann Violin Concerto was not electrifying enough (although I loved the energy he exuded during the Rochberg Caprice Variations); the concertmaster of the Ensemble Kontrapunkte had a tight hand and did not use enough vibrato. I picked and chose what I enjoyed about each performer – Hilary Hahn’s luscious sound, Gidon Kremer’s dexterity, Christian Tetzlaff’s personality – and in the hours I spent in the Schönbrunnerstraße practice rooms, I experimented with my bow speed and pressure, the agility of my left hand, and the width of my vibrato.
When I finally nailed a particularly difficult run in the Paganini – “Dobra!” Barbara exclaimed, a Polish word that I have taken to mean, “voilà, there you go.” She added, “You see? Easy. You know how to play the violin.”
I would love to say that I am cured of self-doubt and can now consistently play Paganini with a strong, clear sound, perfect intonation and no hesitation, but it is a work in progress. That said, I managed to perform the Caprice at the final recital on June 1. I played all three minutes of double stops and finger wiggling and leaps without stopping once. I hit the octaves with courage, and while I certainly did not play every double stop in tune, the encouraging smiles of my teacher and my peers were reward enough. I am infinitely prouder of my playing ability and I trust myself with my playing more than ever before – so many thanks to Barbara Gorzynska and her Polish energy.
When we received the proposed concert schedule in February, I laughed and immediately emailed it to a close friend and Mahler addict. His only response: “Mmmm….so much Mahler – jealous!!!”
I did not know much about Gustav Mahler before coming to Vienna. My exposure to his music was limited; I had only heard a youth orchestra’s performance of the Fifth Symphony and the DSO’s performance of the Second. Beyond mere exposure, however, I had no context in which to place Mahler. I knew nothing of his life, nothing of his motivations as a composer, and nothing of his philosophy of art and beauty. I listened to our first Mahler concert, the Vienna Symphony playing the Second Symphony a mere two days after arriving in Vienna, in complete ignorance. Sitting in the Orgelbalkon rechts of the Musikverein, unable to see anything but a couple of stands of second violins, I was overwhelmed. The timpani took over my heartbeat, the horns and trombones flooded the Musikverein and the current of their sound buffeted me along. I shook and cried at the end of the symphony, not because it was so beautiful, but because the piece had put me through an emotional wringer. By the end of the endless tension and release, I felt like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and I could not understand why; I only understood that it had been too much. Mahler, I wrote in my journal, is as addictive as any drug, and my tolerance was not high enough to take that much; the concert felt like an overdose.
The First Symphony a week later, the Sixth two weeks later, and the Fifth seven weeks later were completely different experiences. Dr. Morten Solvik’s lecture made an astronomical difference in my understanding of Mahler; he became a vulnerable human being who struggled to define art and beauty, not just a legend idolized by musicians around the world. For the first time, I had a context in which to place Mahler’s music, a philosophy that explained his raison d’être and creative genius. As Dr. Solvik explained, Mahler was an avid reader of Arthur Schopenhauer, an early 19th century philosopher who focused his work around the question “What is art?” In his writings, he proclaimed that all of life derives from one single idea, the Will, and that all of humanity is beholden to the Will. Essentially, desires drive human choices; however, these cravings are the root of suffering.
On the other hand, Schopenhauer also believed that one can reflect on one’s humanity, examine the essence of one’s state of being in order to make sense of suffering. (Schopenhauer was strongly influenced by Buddhist teachings.) Part of this understanding is a profound sense of self-forgetting, of abandoning one’s ego and “oneness with the world,” and the best way to forget oneself, he wrote, was through “the creative act of genius.” This art could be expressed in any manner, but he considered music the apex of art, as it is the least dependent on physical selves.
Mahler took Schopenhauer’s writings to heart. His music exists not to entertain, but to communicate something metaphysical, beyond the confines of a mere person.
I brought this context to the next week’s performance of the First Symphony by the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, and the difference between my journal entries of the two symphonies is striking. Mahler overwhelms on purpose, but understanding that purpose makes all the difference between a frighteningly powerful experience and a transcendently powerful experience. In this concert, I did not divorce the music from the orchestra; instead of letting the sound take over the Musikverein, I focused on the humanity of both composer and orchestra. There were intonation glitches, a few instances where the bassoons and low strings did not play together, a few cracked notes… It was not a vision of technical perfection, but the imperfections made the orchestra and the music relatable. By the end, I craved their sound; I loved the way individual instruments came out of the fabric of the orchestra and delved back in. They had an incredible range of colors, textures, and moods. At their softest and most delicate, they came out of nowhere, strings just shimmering, and at their loudest and most bombastic, they were wild, frenetic – almost too wild, but still always in control. Because I was able to place the symphony and the sound within a human context, I related to the music that much more, and my tears and shakiness at the end of the First Symphony were in recognition of the sheer beauty of the piece.
Despite almost forty concerts and hundreds of hours playing, studying, and listening to music, the most powerful aspect of this FSP has been the people on the trip. For the first time since coming to Dartmouth, I feel as though I have found my proverbial niche in a group of people who will not judge or criticize me for being passionate – they are similarly passionate. Thinking back on all ten weeks, one night stands out as the perfect, archetypal FSP group moment. Our second Tuesday here, we were still settling into our apartments and busy concert schedule, just beginning to get to know each other. Somehow, we all ended sharing a dinner together at the boys’ apartment, eating with mismatched plates and cutlery, drinking Hüber wine out of a hodgepodge of water glasses and coffee mugs, talking and laughing together as the sun set and the stars came out. We sat there for hours, sharing stories about favorite pieces, our high school music experiences, and laughing at our collective geekiness. Soon enough, a guitar emerged and we shared favorite songs, putting our theory backgrounds to good use in our attempts to come up with innovative harmonies.
I have been looking for this group of people since I arrived a wide-eyed freshman at Dartmouth. With these people, I can walk out of the Konzerthaus after the Faust Symphony starry-eyed with happiness, and I know they will understand. They will smile with me because they too have had the same visceral, powerful experience – with the Alpine Symphony, with Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, with B.B. King, with the organ concert at St. Florian, with Dialogues des Carmélites. Their eyes light up the same way – and I recognized the importance of these people and their passion in my life for the first time that Tuesday night. They have given me friendship and a support system that I know will remain in place when we all return to Hanover.
I am always more comfortable performing in front of strangers than in front of people I know and care about. I can walk into an audition with just a few jitters, but evaluations at the Longy School of Music, in front of teachers I loved and admired, threw me into paroxysms of anxiety. The night before our final recital, I asked the six people sharing pizza and cold soba noodles if they would listen and give me feedback on my pieces. I fell apart catastrophically in my Paganini caprice. My fingers shook and my palms were clammy. As I put my violin down and cringed at the judgment that I was sure would follow, they surprised me. “You’re going to be fine,” they said. They smiled at me. Their comments were constructive, gentle. “Try taking it a touch slower,” they said. “You know how to play this; just take a deep breath.” I was amazed, relieved, felt a rush of affection for these friends who wanted nothing but the best for me.
After my performance in the recital, I quickly and quietly took a seat in the back of the room to listen to the last piece. Paul was sitting next to me, and as Richard and Avery began to tune, he leaned over and poked me. “Look at you!” he whispered, grinning. “You nailed that!”
I am so thankful for these friends in my life, and I am even more thankful that I found them through music. I am thankful that they know what it means to be moved to tears by a truly beautiful piece and that they have experienced this Viennese adventure with me. I am returning to the United States a more grounded, confident, settled person because of the support, musical and otherwise, that they have given me.
Vienna feels like home, and that fact never ceases to astonish me. Every time we returned from a trip – Bratislava, Salzburg, Prague – I breathed a sigh of relief: home.
People approach new experiences in a variety of ways. Some explore for the thrill of something new; some find comfort in the familiar. I exist in the middle of the spectrum. I like seeing the new become familiar, reveling in the initial thrill and the eventual comfort. Navigating the U-Bahn for the first time was an adventure; now, I rattle off the connecting bus lines at Karlsplatz along with the computerized announcer. I could not relate to Elektra the day after I arrived; Die lustige Witwe was just fun.
Vienna shocked me. I surrounded myself with newness to break the rut of familiarity I had fallen into in my musical life at Dartmouth. This trip taught me to look at the commonplace with a new, more creative mindset, to delve into music, to actively interact with it, not passively allow it to happen around me. I have enough knowledge now to find the familiar within the new, but not so much that there is nothing left to explore.
I have always been concerned with how things should be, how I should be. Here in Vienna, I have had to consciously stop some of this thinking. There are parts of music that do not have shoulds and should nots. There are parts of music waiting for my interpretations, my experiences, my creativity. I just have to be bold enough to take those risks.
I will miss this city and this experience. I know I am leaving Vienna a better, more confident musician.