“Too many notes.”

Almost everyone will be familiar with those withering words, which were attributed to the Emperor Joseph II in the 1984 film, Amadeus, after hearing the first performance of Mozart’s opera, Il Seraglio.  

Aside from the frivolous, and quite ludicrous, nature of the observation, it did prompt me to reflect: if not too many notes, certainly very many.

We are now so used to the massive output and creativity of classical music over the last few hundred years that it can be easy to overlook the sheer labour involved in transcribing these mental sounds on to paper.

Think for a moment on the implications of no electricity in this context. No electronic keyboard with the luxury of a backspace (probably the most used button on my laptop) to delete or replace. No means of recording. In short everything, absolutely everything (including the lines for the music itself, giving us the word ‘score’) had to be done by hand. Nowadays you can sing a tune into any number of gizmos, and before you have gathered your breath with the next inspiration, you will have a beautifully produced manuscript, fully orchestrated and ready to go.

This is not to belittle the efforts of contemporary composers, merely to highlight the extraordinary achievements of their predecessors. It is all the more remarkable for the fact that music, – unlike, say, painting – relies almost solely on the hand of its creator. Yes, there are plenty of examples of composers or students finishing off works of their masters; but because you cannot ever hear what is going on in a musician’s head, nothing can have the authenticity of the originator. An artist can direct his followers much more easily.

Even an author or playwright is transferring one or two thoughts into just one thread, a sentence, a phrase.

This makes the feat of writing music down a monumental task. At one end, the solo instrument may present few problems; but imagine, at the other end of the scale, conveying the sound of a full opera, or a mass, with all its singers and every single instrument in an orchestra. It’s no wonder that so many fecund composers died young. Regardless of what they’d been suffering from, exhaustion must surely have played a part.

All those notes. All by hand. And for hundreds of years with a quill and ink.

I’ve no idea how many notes there are in this electrifying piece by Mendelssohn, his Rondo Capriccioso for piano, published in 1830, when the composer was just 21 (he would not reach 40). Lots in the closing half, that’s for sure. I’ve posted on this composer once before (his octet), and the more I listen to him, the more I realize how much joy I’ve been avoiding for so many years.

In its opening bars you might be forgiven for thinking it’s the introduction to a Schubert song, and it certainly does sing. The real action starts a couple of minutes in, with a thrilling presto, which professional pianists will secretly confide sounds harder to play than it is – which is why it is something of a showpiece.

The American pianist Murray Perahia (b 1947) is the performer here, a musician whose career has been intermittently interrupted by a hand injury, but as good an interpreter of the keyboard music of Mendelssohn, Mozart and Bach you will find. Some 40 years ago, I took a girl to see him perform a Mozart piano concerto in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. I wonder if she remembers…

Too many words. Over to the music.

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5 thoughts on ““Too many notes.””

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