Online Journal

We are pleased to publish your letters, but cannot include readers' email addresses since this can lead to problems of privacy. All letters should be addressed to me, John Woodford, at [email protected]. In association with Oxford University Press, we are pleased to give away ‘The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music’ (4th Edition, Michael Kennedy) for each month’s most interesting letter. This valuable resource should be on any musician’s reference shelves.

From Miriam Featherstone, Middlesex

I was slightly put out by some of Mr Woodford’s editorial comments in the last issue. Whilst I completely agree that all too often an unmusical public expects too much for too little money, Music Societies are a very different situation. Being on the committee of my local society, I am responsible for booking artists for our concerts. We, like many other societies, are sadly dwindling in terms of audience and the money available to us is limited. Regular performances by top professionals are not an option to us. Therefore, I am often looking for young musicians who are on the final lap of their education who are looking for a platform on which to gain the vital performance experience they need; in this way Music Societies have helped countless young performers for decades. I admit that the fees we pay for this are slightly below a full professional rate, but in this way I have arranged more successful concerts than would have been otherwise possible, without one complaint from the young artists involved. Once these musicians have finished their education, we would only invite them back (and have done many times) to play at their professional rate. I think then that the insinuation that Music Societies are all penny-pinching is unfair. I would never ask someone to reduce their fee, but I would tell them that we couldn’t afford them if that was the case. In years gone by when Music Societies were patronised by a much larger number of people, the issue was different. In today’s situation, economics is unfortunately a big factor in keeping our society going. I like to feel that, for the moment at least, I have found a way of dealing with this problem in a way that is beneficial to both sides, and is certainly not exploitative.

John Woodford replies:

You make a fair point and you must be applauded for your attitude to helping young performers gain valuable platform experience. But although you tell musicians that you cannot afford their fee, you are nevertheless blackmailing them with a ‘like it or lump it’ option. They still need to put food on the table at the end of the day. Then again, I suppose there is always the ‘DIY’ option: if you boiler goes, you might attempt to fix it yourself before calling in someone who knows what to do (at a full professional rate). Why not take the same approach with music? I was recently able (naughtily) to eavesdrop on a quick committee meeting of a (to me) local orchestra. They were complaining that the fee I, and several others, commanded was too great and that this would eat into their capital reserves quite heavily. These reserves were something to the tune of £5,000…what is a sum like that for if not to help provide excellent concerts. It’s as simple as this: if you want it done well, then you should have to pay. Blackmailing some poor musician into playing for a lesser fee, just because you think you cannot afford it, is morally wrong. Think back to how cold it gets in February without a boiler!

From Tim Churchill, Lancaster

I am glad that ‘Anon’ takes on the task of providing a broader insight into music for his/her pupils ( Online Journal, Letters, December 2000). There is a real problem, however, with expecting their parents to take a serious interest in a musical education unless they themselves are musicians. There is a desperate need to rid society - at least in the UK - of the attitude that music is something separate from the rest of education and therefore not really necessary. Unfortunately, parents with no musical education themselves are fixed in their outlook and there is little point in attempting change it. The only point of change is with the pupils themselves. I suggest a little brainwashing along the lines of ‘When you are a parent, how about making sure that your children get a bit more support when they are learning music?’

Have you noticed that changes in a society generally take a generation to take effect? You have to breed a new one with the new ideas whilst waiting for the old one to die. The classic examples are those of dictators - anyone can think of examples where this holds true. Changing the thinking on music and its teaching is a generation problem and the music establishment must set its target on the next generations, not the present one.

As I have said in a previous letter, music needs to be taught at the mother’s knee. Indeed, music can be played to the child whilst still in the womb, which can have a remarkably calming effect on an active foetus. At the very least playgroups could be encouraged to include a hefty dose of music, which might help children with non-musical backgrounds. When they get to primary school music needs to be much more prevalent, even if it is only listening and discussion periods, and at the secondary level it needs to be taken from its position as an also-ran to mainstream. You don’t go to an English class and learn Language, Literature and Drama all in the same lessons. Likewise, appreciation, theory, and performance should be separate subjects. We might then have a generation that appreciated music for its full worth and backed to the hilt those of its children that desire/need to acquire the skills of performance.

I suspect that this generation problem is also partly the reason for new music failing to gain acceptance by the music establishment. You can have music that audiences love to hear, but the current teachers/conductors don’t want to be bothered with it because it involves them in a lot of extra work. Why learn something new when you can get by with much less effort on the repertoire you already have? Curiously, this doesn’t seem to be the case with performers who generally seem much more ready to try something new.

From Jim Kahrtz

I wonder if you could help me. I would love to read and learn the origin of Beethoven’s Bagatelle in A minor WoO59, Für Elise. How did it come about? What prompted Beethoven to write it, etc. I have heard he wrote it for someone’s daughter?

John Suchet replies:

One of Beethoven’s pupils - a young lady he fell in love with and intended proposing marriage to - was Therèse Malfatti (1792-1851). He composed a piece of piano music for her, making absolutely sure she could play it and entitled it simply Bagatelle. Therèse was the daughter of a wealthy merchant of Italian origin with a fine house in the Käntnerstrasse.

One evening, at this house, Beethoven got drunk on a strong punch served by Signor Malfatti and made advances to Therèse, which upset her and her family. Realising a proposal of marriage would be rejected, he refrained from making it, but presented Therèse with the manuscript of the Bagatelle. At her request, he wrote on the title page Für Therèse.

The manuscript was found in her effects on her death. Recognising the notation as being in Beethoven’s hand, the decision was made to publish the piece posthumously. The publisher was unable to decipher the writing at the top of the page and settled for Elise rather than Therèse. Hence Für Elise - probably the most famous piece of piano music Beethoven ever wrote, simply because anybody can play it! He composed it in either 1808 or 1810, and it is officially listed as WoO 59.

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