You cannot be unconventional if there are no conventions

Last October, I wrote about, and quoted Misha Donat writing about, the astonishing outburst that happens during the Andantino movement of Schubert’s penultimate Piano Sonata, D959.

In Standpoint, Jonathan Gaisman reflects on the value of artistic conventions, while writing about that same amazing passage:

We live now in an age which congratulates itself on the fact that art has succeeded in dispensing with aesthetic boundaries; however we do not always recognise what an impoverishment such freedom brings with it. If there are no conventions, it is impossible to be unconventional. In the middle section of the andantino, Schubert flouts every compositional principle, every concert-goer’s expectation. No wonder that András Schiff has said that the piece’s “modernity is incredible even today”. It is in effect a nervous breakdown in music, all the more remarkable from a composer who was writing at the dawn of the Romantic era but whose idiom and language are still classical.

Had Schubert not been cut down in his prime by syphilis, and had he not seen this coming, but had he instead lived to a ripe old age, composing all the while, would that actually have been, for us listeners, unambiguously better? Would he ever have written music like that, and like the other “late” masterpieces that he did write?

Moonset behind Ely Cathedral

I “follow” all sorts of people on Twitter, but if they haven’t recently posted at just the moment when I look at my Twitter feed, I am liable to miss things.

Things like this photo, by Andrew Sharpe, of a “moonset” behind his beloved Ely Cathedral, which he posted on December 30th:


If Sharpe hadn’t posted something about vaccines, just when I happened to be doing a little lurking on Twitter, I might never have bothered looking at his latest stuff, and I might have missed this completely.

When classical music doubled up as pugilism: Beethoven knocks out Steibelt

John Suchet first wrote about Ludwig van Beethoven in the form of a three volume fictionalised biography. I recently read the first two volumes, but then switched to reading Suchet’s shorter, unfictionalised biography of Beethoven, which sticks closer to the known facts and cuts back on the flights of fancy.

But you suspect that Suchet still gets somewhat carried away. Here is his description (pp. 106-110) of a famous-at-the-time piano contest between Beethoven and the noted Prussian virtuoso Daniel Steibelt, that took place in Vienna in 1800. Beethoven spent his life establishing himself as a composer, as distinct from relying on being a mere performer, and when his deafness struck he had no choice in the matter. He had to compose, and only to compose. But when he first arrived in Vienna, it was as a keyboard virtuoso and improviser, as well as composer, that Beethoven had first made his name.

Two regular themes at this blog are sport and classical music. In 1800, in Vienna, these two things were a lot closer than they are now:

It was customary at that time in Vienna for aristocrats to stage ‘improvisation contests’ in their salons. The way it would work was that their two virtuosos, with their supporters, would meet in a salon, and display their skills before an audience. This would involve playing their own compositions, possibly with an ensemble, and then setting tasks for each other. One would play a theme he had invented, which the other could not possibly have heard before, and improvise on it. The other would then go to the piano and try to emulate this. Then this second virtuoso would set a theme of his own invention, and the first player would have to copy that. Often it would involve imitation. If one pianist had a particular style, the other would imitate it. It was an evening’s entertainment in aristocratic Vienna.

Very soon after his arrival in Vienna, when aristocrats such as Lichnowsky realised what young Beethoven was capable of, they put him up against the local talent, and one by one he saw them off, at the same time steadily enhancing his reputation. Enter Daniel Steibelt, from Berlin, capital of Prussia, a renowned piano virtuoso with a fearsome reputation. Steibelt had stunned salon audiences in Berlin with his extraordinary virtuosity, enhanced by his trademark flourish, the tremolando. Now on a tour of European capitals, he had arrived in Vienna to conquer that city’s sophisticated musical cognoscenti. He brought with him something of a dashing reputation. He had been forced to join the Prussian army by his father, but had deserted to pursue a musical career.

It seems some of Beethoven’s friends went to hear Steibelt and were stunned at his virtuosity, to such an extent that they feared he might damage Beethoven’s reputation. This is probably why Beethoven, by now sick of these showcase events designed solely for the amusement of aristocrats, agreed to go along to the home of Count von Fries. He decided that he would play his recently published Trio for piano, clarinet and cello, which he had dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky’s mother-in-law. Steibelt brought along four musicians to perform his Piano Quintet.

The company assembled, including no doubt Prince Lichnowsky and his family. Beethoven and his musicians played first. His Trio was perhaps a slightly odd choice, since the piano part does not call for a particularly high degree of virtuosity. The work is in three movements, is fairly straightforward, and the critics welcomed it as being more easily comprehensible than the earlier published Op. l Piano Trios. The final movement is a set of variations on a well-known theme from a comic opera which had recently played successfully in Vienna.

There was polite applause from the salon audience, including Steibelt, who had listened ‘with a certain condescension’, and made a show of complimenting Beethoven. He took his position, with his musicians, in front of the audience, confident his Quintet would put Beethoven’s Trio in the shade and win the day. To make sure, he added some impressive (no doubt prepared) improvisation, and drew gasps from the audience with his audacious tremolandos.

At the end there was no doubt in anyone’s mind who had put on the more impressive display. All eyes turned to Beethoven, who as was usual at these events had the ‘right of reply’. Beethoven remained stubbornly in his seat and refused to play again. Steibelt had carried the day.

A week later it was decided to repeat the event, to stage a ‘rematch’. Given that Beethoven had been reluctant to attend the earlier evening, we can only assume his blood was up. Steibelt’s condescending behaviour, not to mention his ridiculously showy playing, had got under Beethoven’s skin. He was out for revenge.

There must have been an air of tension and anticipation in Count Fries’s salon on this second evening. Beethoven’s unpredictable temperament was well known. Everybody knew he had been bested a week earlier, and they would have seen the flare in his eyes and the set of his jaw. This spelled trouble.

Steibelt went first this time. He performed another of his quintets, which again met with great approval. Then he once again improvised on the piano, in a way that put his previous performance in the shade. It was brilliant. But he made a mistake, a serious mistake. There were gasps from the audience as they realised he had chosen the theme from the final movement of Beethoven’s own Trio, performed at the previous meeting, on which to improvise.

If the audience was shocked, Beethoven’s friends were appalled. That was nothing to how Beethoven felt. This time he needed no encouragement. He got out of his seat, stormed to the front, and as he passed the music stands snatched up the cello part of Steibelt’s Quintet. He sat roughly on the stool, all thoughts of salon etiquette gone, and made a show of putting the cello part on the piano stand upside-down.

He glared at the music, playing now to the audience, knowing he had everyone’s attention, aware that the decisive moment in the ‘Contest Beethoven v. Steibelt’ had come. With one finger he hammered out a series of notes from the first bar of Steibelt’s music. He made it sound exactly what it was: crude and unsophisticated. He then began to improvise. And boy, did he improvise. He imitated Steibelt’s playing, he unpicked it and put it back together again, he played some tremolandos, emphasising their absurdity. He played in a way no salon audience had heard before, and that Steibelt could not have believed was humanly possible.

It is easy to picture that powerful head, hair untamed, clothes inappropriate, fingers moving in a blur, no doubt singing, shouting, quite possibly hurling insults at the Prussian, who was probably sitting, back erect, powdered wig in place, clothes perfectly fitting, fingers curling tighter and tighter, as he realised he was not just being outplayed, he was being humiliated – in front of the most sophisticated musical gathering in the most sophisticated musical city in Europe.

Steibelt did not sit that way for long. With Beethoven still playing, he rose from his chair and strode out of the salon. He made it clear he never wanted to meet Beethoven again, and that if ever he was invited to perform again in Vienna, he would do so only if Beethoven was not present. In fact he took even more drastic action than that. He abandoned his tour and returned to Berlin to nurse his wounds. Some years later he went to St Petersburg and remained there for the rest of his life. He never returned to Vienna, and never met Beethoven again.

As for Beethoven, he was now – if there was any doubt before – the undisputed master of the keyboard in Vienna, if not Europe. Even Hummel, greatly admired, could not touch him. And following the drubbing of Steibelt, Beethoven was never again asked to take part in an improvisation contest. His position as Vienna’s supreme piano virtuoso was established once and for all.

Does he know it’s him?

Danny Deraney tweets this:

But is the dog “practicing faces”? Or is it just trying to get some sort of reaction out of … another dog?

The thread that follows includes the claim that only three species besides us know that a reflection of me in a mirror is a reflection of me in a mirror: dolphins, great apes, and elephants.

But in my opinion, some dogs and some cats also pass this test. Not all dogs and all cats, because many dogs and many cats are thick as two planks. But many are not, and in my opinion are capable of working this out. As one tweeter says: “Some dogs” do have the sense of self that a mirror might reveal, if they get it. Some dogs do work out that “that’s me there”. Ditto some cats.

By the way, the reason cats and dogs vary so much in intelligence is that they have been bread by humans who were selecting for other qualities besides intelligence, like: docility, obedience, sociability, and cuteness. On the whole, intelligence was not being selected for (especially not with cats), and consequently it varies hugely. In my opinion.

Scientists solve the mystery of why wombats have cube-shaped poo


How wombats produce their cube-shape poo has long been a biological puzzle but now an international study has provided the answer to this unusual natural phenomenon.

The cube shape is formed within the intestines – not at the point of exit, as previously thought …

Good to know.

Flash grief

So here I was, all set to do a great excerpt from a book about Beethoven. But then, my scanning software suddenly wasn’t working. I alerted The Guru. After the usual palaver about “Is it plugged in?” and “Is the scanner connected to the computer?” (yes and yes) The Guru then spent a while operating my computer from a distance (he has this particular superpower) and he then revealed that the reason my old scanning software had stopped working was that it made use of Adobe Flash, and Adobe Flash has recently given up the ghost.

So, another scanning system was installed, and I am now struggling to make sense of it. The Guru is very wise, but he suffers from the affliction of many gurus, which is that he supposes that what is to him obvious is surely quite easy also for the rest of us to understand. I have to explain it to him that what is obvious to him is, for me, downright impenetrable and bordering on impossible. To him, the new software is easy. He is used to getting to grips with new software. To him, that’s easy. For me, even when he has taken me through every small step, this new piece of software is still a great swirl of confusion, and I need a clear day to get to grips with it.

It is now nearly midnight, and so instead of that Beethoven book excerpt, which I will try to do tomorrow, there has only been time for this.

Sheff U beat Man U

Because of my fondness for 6k and his bloggage, and his fondness for my bloggage, my second favourite team in the football Premiership is now Sheffield United.

Who are now bottom of the table, but who this evening defeated Manchester United, now second to top of the table. I didn’t follow the game. I merely kept half an eye on the score. I was sad when Man U equalised, thinking: oh dear, that’s it then. But then Sheff U went ahead, again. Hurrah! But oh dear, they’ll still lose. Except that they didn’t. The blue 1-2 never turned into a blue 2-2 and then a blue 3-2. Instead the blue 1-2 turned into a yellow 1-2, and Sheff U had won. Anyone can now beat anyone, it would seem. And in particular Sheffield United can now beat anyone.

And so it begins. The torture of hope.

Photoers in July 2006 – because I just like them

At first the only one I was going to stick up here was photo number 15, the one with the bloke holding his glasses in his mouth, because I just liked it. But then, I thought, some of these others are not too bad as well, and one photo led to another … and:

All photoed by me in the space of less than one hour, outside Westminster Abbey.

I love the old little cameras, now all gobbled up by the Mighty Mobile. But most of all I love how much fun we were all having, them photoing and me photoing them photoing.

Also: lots of maps. Also now swallowed up by the Mighty Mobile.

Buggering on

According to GodDaughter2’s Dad in one of his recent emails, Churchill once said something about how we just have to keep buggering on. Either that or GD2D made this up. Anyway, that’s what I am now doing, as best I can.

Today started going to hell last night when the Royal Marsden rang to say that the telephone-appointment they had been saying for about a fortnight would be at 3.30pm might actually be at more like 11am! Which meant that cricket lag (which it turns out I am suffering from) came into play. Instead of sleeping during the small and then not-so-small hours of this morning, I instead had a succession of coughing fits, all made worse by the thought that, come the telephone-appointment, I would be struggling to stay awake. The only way to stop the coughing during the night was to get fully up, sandals, sweater, the lot, and sit for an hour or two in front of my computer like it was the day. Being vertical being the only way to stop the coughing. Maybe it’s just because I now have words for what is wrong with me, but my lungs, while I was coughing, seemed truly about to give up on me, if not now, then some time rather soon.

But at least, having got me up at the crack of 10.30am, the appointment was indeed at just after 11am, so there was that. So, back to bed for the afternoon, including a bit of sleep, and then an early evening during which various further details were sorted, to do with who would live my life for me in the event that I became incapable of living it myself. Once again my Senior Designated Friend was driving all that along. Without her, I’d not yet be dead but I’d probably be wishing I was.

Now, I am trying to avoid eating or drinking anything that might keep me awake for yet another night. Quite easy because today I consumed a massive fish pie at lunchtime. But will I sleep tonight? Weird how I can sleep through great chunks of one of the great fourth innings run chases of all time, but could not, last night, just sleep. So maybe it’ll be the same this coming night, with, again, no cricket to relax me.

Tomorrow, at a genuinely early time in the morning, I am off again to the Marsden, for a Covid jab and for research tests associated with that (they want to know how lung cancer sufferers react to the Covid jab), and I’ll also hope to be picking up an inhaler, to stop me coughing being the idea of that. We shall see. At least I’m finally getting the jab.

Just taken another daily magic anti-cancer pill. Will it ever have any effect on the cough? Like: end it. That would really be something.