Context is Everything….

In these last few postings, especially Make It Personal, Part II, it becomes clear that context imparts meaning in a big way. Or, how about that c# minor in the Mozart V concerto (Make It Personal, Part I)? It is dramatic because it breaks in upon this pleasant major (here, the dominant E) tonality…. Context.

At the poetry reading event last week, one young man got up and read the following poem by Lisel Muellergiving only the word “Romantics” for the title.

The modern biographers worry

how far it went,” their tender friendship.

They wonder just what it means

when he writes he thinks of her constantly,

his guardian angel, beloved friend.

The modern biographers ask

the rude, irrelevant question

of our age, as if the event

of two bodies meshing together

establishes the degree of love,

forgetting how softly Eros walked

in the nineteenth century, how a hand

held overlong or a gaze anchored

in someone’s eyes could unseat a heart,

and nuances of address, not known

in our egalitarian language

could make the redolent air

tremble and shimmer with the heat

of possibility. Each time I hear

the Intermezzi, sad

and lavish in their tenderness,

I imagine the two of them

sitting in a garden

among late-blooming roses

and dark cascades of leaves,

letting the landscape speak for them,

leaving nothing to overhear.


Ok. Fine.

He was then asked to read it again giving the full title: “Romantics: 
Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann”

Eureka! The words snapped into focus. With everything we know about these two people, meaning and memories swirled off the page.

7 responses to “Context is Everything….

  1. OK. You mentioned it. What is it about C# minor. My favorite pieces of music—Beethoven’s opus 111, Piano sonata, Brahms, opus 60 Quartet, and then I hear a new piece tat I love, and what is it’s major key home? C#minor. So what is it?

  2. Sharan Leventhal

    Well – people do assign specific characters to specific keys. In the case of Mozart, C# Minor did seem to be particularly turbulent, and he didn’t use if very often (notable in the Piano Concerto #24). So, perhaps it wasn’t fair of me to say that it is dramatic because of the context – but it certainly is startling because of it….

  3. Love Lisel Mueller.
    Do you know her background? Interesting lady. Came to writing poetry late, after a lifetime of living, and only after her father died. Then she began to write.

    Everything I researched about Brahms and Clara, last year and the year before seems to think he was always ever so proper and kept the friendship just that. I always ache for him when I read about this. Is there more I don’t know? What a silly question!

    • Sharan Leventhal

      Whatever scraps of history come to us (in books, letters, anecdotes…) we tend to frame them in terms of contemporary social mores and behaviors. It doesn’t occur to us to think outside the box of our own time and place. Mueller’s poem says it much better than I can….

  4. PS
    I’m not questioning the dramatic and startling C#minor is Mozart, I was just commenting that many of the pieces of music I fall in love with, are in that key. I don’t know hardly enough to recognize keys when I hear them, but I do recognize the changes and differences, even though I don’t know what they are.

    What is the beautiful music at the top of your posts?
    Pieter Wispelwey is playing some George Crumb at his recital on the 3rd. I’ve never heard any performed. Looking forward. But another question. The Crumb’s manuscripts I’ve seen are pictures. The music goes around in circles and has colors. How do you read it? I’d love to know more before I hear Pieter play the music. No time to do any research before it.

  5. Sharan Leventhal

    The music at the top of the blog is from Ben Johnston’s second string quartet (color added for the cover art on Kepler’s first CD). Crumb used altered notation – graphic and altered notation was part of the aesthetic for many composers starting in the 1950s….

  6. Pingback: I Got Rhythm… | Just Tuning In

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