By Matthew Young

YoungC.P.E. Bach’s Solfeggio in C Minor is not a difficult piece for the classical pianist. During my middle school years, it was both technically and musically challenging, but now, with more developed technique, I find the piece is easily playable at the composer’s fast tempo markings. As an experiment, I played the piece for my friend, an occasional classical music listener who mainly listens to music of the non-classical genre. He listened intently to my purposefully obscene performance of the piece — faster than Bach’s demands and replete with missing notes and ignored editorial marks. The music made almost no sense, but he was amazed.

Later, I sent him a recording of Georgian pianist Eliso Virsaladze’s dark and sensitive performance of the second movement of Prokofiev’s second piano sonata. “It sounds like she is playing wrong notes…but she isn’t,” he remarked, reacting to the movement’s dissonance. After explaining to him that it was both technically and musically difficult, he said, “I still think Solfeggio sounds harder.” In a moment, all the years of work at the piano since I studied Bach’s piece flashed through my mind. Are notes all that people hear?

What does any listener hear when he listens to classical piano music? If he is acquainted with the classical music genre but is not a pianist, he may hear melodies, harmonies, a wicked number of notes, and fast passagework. This listener may also pick up on subtleties like voicing, color changes, and relationships in tempo. The pianist, a different kind of listener, will hear all of these as well as deeper, more complex subtleties, and he may begin to dissect the performance, reacting to both what he likes and what he questions.

In a culture in which the majority of the population does not listen to classical music, what does the casual listener hear? He may have encountered classical music at times, either in kindergarten at nap time when his teacher played recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or in his beginning instrument lessons that were likely dropped by high school, leaving him little time to begin to explore the classical canon of his instrument, or even at an operatic or symphonic performance. He may hear classical music on NPR late at night, and may even be vaguely aware of the use of classical music in film and television. But this listener is bombarded with popular music on all fronts, endlessly hearing it on the radio, on TV, in office buildings, in stores, or reading about it in magazines.

This listener should not be condemned, as he is simply a product of the modern age. Neither is this to say that one type of listener is better or more sophisticated than the other. He who listens only to classical music has the ability to cradle large works in his ears — sonatas or symphonies that last more than forty minutes — whereas he may find the three or four minute pop song boring and repetitive. Similarly, he who listens only to popular music can appreciate and understand its directness, short in length and usually assertive in musical gesture, whereas he may view prolonged classical music as drole and pretentious drivel. Because most modern Americans identify with the popular music listener, the classical pianist must examine this type of listener’s reaction to one facet of classical music, the gargantuan repertoire for piano.

What does the popular music listener hear when he hears a classical piano piece? Because the piano is such a versatile instrument, present in almost all types of music, he immediately recognizes its timbre. He may pontificate on the beauty and/or meaning of the music, but will only view the fastest fingerwork as difficult. Even a trill or a turn, two gestures that are simple for most pianists when compared to more multi-faceted concepts like sound production and energy conservation, will come across as more impressive and skillful than even the most well-phrased line or a series of perfectly-voiced chords. Every pianist has had the experience of impressing “mainstreamed” audiences more with his scale or arpeggio warm-up than with his pristine performance of a slow movement of a Mozart or Beethoven sonata.

A YouTube search of “America’s Got Talent piano” yielded a spectrum of results from the only American television show that allows a person to audition with any type of performance, regardless of discipline. The results were as expected: dozens of pianists playing hundreds of fast passages, both improvisatory and pre-existing, inaccurately and unmusically. The sidebar of related videos informed me that this was not an American phenomenon: the Norwegian, Chinese, and British equivalents of America’s Got Talent showcased people playing poor arrangements of national songs, people playing piano with their toes, and audiences cheering nanoseconds after the “pianist” began to play the runs that classical pianists use to warm up every day.

Another YouTube video titled “The Next Mozart? 6-Year Old Piano Prodigy Wows All” posted in 2008 by WGN, a news station in Chicago, features Emily Bear, a young pianist of Rockford, Illinois studying at the Chicago Institute of Music. The video claims that Bear, who was “discovered by her grandmother at the age of two,” “writes her own music”, and both she and the reporter compare her to Mozart. However, when she played her own compositions in the video, only simple chord progressions and hackneyed melodies (the kind you might use to try out a piano you’ve never played) emerged from her instrument. But, when the non-classical listener hears this music, does he hear music comparable to that of Mozart? Mozart was redefining music harmonically and structurally at Emily Bear’s age; but the video hails Emily’s primitive improvisations as the next great works of the piano canon. While this young musician may be a budding pianist, the media’s reaction to this situation poses innumerable problems, both cultural and musicological.

But who am I to point fingers at or discredit the work of musicians who are not like me? It is not the fault of these musicians that many modern-day listeners have lost the ability to understand skill and artistry in piano music, but the modern situation poses a dilemma for the classical pianist: is he still relevant?

Studying at a classical music conservatory alongside peers who understand what their fellow students do can be misleading. In a way, we are living in a false microcosm of the world and have convinced ourselves that what we do is important.

And for me, it is. But there are days when the pianist’s mind begins to wonder as he nears his sixth hour of practice. He imagines playing Solfeggioin C Minor on America’s Got Talent at stupid speed, becoming an overnight sensation for audiences who have never heard the likes of Horowitz, Uchida, or Argerich. He then turns back to the daunting task of perfecting the second movement of a Prokofiev sonata, working on something so subtle that it may be of no importance at all outside a few relatively small circles. He knows the competitiveness of the world he is entering, and he asks himself if it is really worth it.

19-year-old Matthew Young of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, is honored and thrilled to be participating in The Rubin Institute for Music Criticism! Young, who is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance and a Bachelor of Arts in English or Creative Writing at Oberlin, has won several competitions and scholarships in Florida, and was invited to perform chamber music with other young musicians at the inaugural Emerging Young Artists Summer Music Festival at Friday Musicale. In summer 2011, he attended Spain’s Valencia International Piano Academy where he studied with Julian Martin, Hamish Milne, and Yong Hi Moon. Young is also interested in reading and writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and songs, as well as singing. He has been named one of ten Rubin Fellows who will participate in Oberlin’s Rubin Institute for Musical Criticism in January.

Published on December 27, 2011.