Progress Report 2: Brahms

[Updated to correct an error pointed out by my smart brother.]

Here I talked about my resolution to learn Brahms’s Intermezzo in E-flat Major. I’m hard at work! Technically, it’s not especially hard. The sheet music I’m using for the piece grades the difficulty of pieces from 1 to 10, and this one gets a 5 — middle of the range. But, you know, my fingers aren’t what they used to be…

The piece is in standard ABA format. The middle section is in G-flat Major, which is also pretty standard. The problem is that G-flat Major on the piano has six freakin’ flats. Here’s what the beginning of the middle section looks like:

This is not hard music to play, unless you’re out of practice playing music with six flats, in which case you’re continually stumbling when you go to play a C and you realize that you should be playing a B, because the C is flatted in this key, and C flat is B. Right?

It also doesn’t help that Brahms has a pretty rich harmonic language going on here, so by the fifth measure of the middle section he’s temporarily turning those C-flats into C-naturals, and you have to remember that too.

The right thing to do is to just go ahead and memorize the piece so you’re not stuck trying to sight-read it. But, you know, that’s a lot of work. And I’ve got a novel to finish.

How should I spend my time now that I’ve given up on the American experiment?

So many things to choose from.

  • Clean out my garage.  You’ve seen my garage, right?  You haven’t?  It’s a mess.  Decluttering is all the rage.  Maybe I’ll start there.
  • Read A Theory of Justice by John Rawls.  Reading about his theory clarified for me why I’m a liberal.  But I’ve never read the book itself.  It’s, um, long.  And if I read it, maybe I’ll have to read all the books that have been written in response to it.  And meanwhile the garage will get messy again.
  • Listen to more Brahms.  How come I got to be as old as I am without listening to his string quintets?  They’re great!  What else am I missing?  I can listen to Brahms while cleaning my garage.
  • Finish my novel.  Faster.  Luckily, my novel doesn’t have anything to do with politics.  Of course, it’s entirely possible politics will sneak in before I’m done with it.
  • Re-read Shakespeare.  I’ve let that go for too long.  Now would be a great time to start it up again.  Also, there are a couple of Shakespeare exhibits at the Boston Public Library.  How come I’m not there right now?

Of course, there’s always the chance that at some point I’ll rethink my current attitude.  As that noted optimist Samuel Beckett famously said:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Failing better is the American way.

Eulogies and the wit of the staircase

I was attending a memorial service at Mount Auburn Cemetery the other day, and I was asked to say a few words about my wonderful cousin Bob, who died recently from the effects of Alzheimer’s.  I said my piece and took my seat.

And then I remembered a beautiful anecdote that summed up Bob perfectly.  Three years ago he had sent me a lovely email remembering my father (who died many years ago) on my father’s birthday.  Fighting the wreckage of his mind, Bob still managed to send me a thoughtful email (complete with a Dickens reference).  When I recalled this I wanted to jump up from my seat and say, “Wait a minute!  I’m not done yet!”  But I had missed my chance.

This is a somewhat morbid example of l’esprit de l’escalier — the wit of the staircase — where you think of the perfect rejoinder to an argument at a dinner party only as you are on the way out.

This happened to me before, after I spoke at my mother’s funeral.  In the last months of her life something happened to her brain, and she had a perpetual low-grade random fear.  It was heartbreaking.  A couple of weeks later I was driving to work and listening to a tape of John Gielgud declaiming Shakespeare.  And suddenly I heard him recite the famous song from Cymbeline, which starts like this:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.


It’s not exactly Christian theology, but it spoke to me.  I almost crashed my car on Route 128 when I heard it.  That’s what I should have said to my mother as I said goodbye to her.  Fear no more.

Oh well.

Because I’m in the mood, here is Brahms’ German Requiem.  This piece will always remind me of sitting with Cousin Bob and his wife Lesley in a darkened room in a Vermont hospice, listening to this great music as Bob’s father’s life ebbed away.  Here is the English text of part one:

Blessed are they that mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
They who sow in tears,
shall reap in joy.
Go forth and cry,
bearing precious seed,
and come with joy
bearing their sheaves