Saturday, February 28, 2015

Playing Beethoven again

Some months ago a friend gave me the three volumes of Beethoven piano sonatas in hardcover. They'd never been used, and though they were fairly elderly, they were in pristine condition.

I hadn't played the sonatas for some time, although I've had the books since I was a teenager, and learned them most of them (with a few exceptions) as a young man. During the years I've come back to them a number of times, but had found myself less and less enamoured of them for some reason.

Over the summer holidays I didn't play the piano much, and of course, at my age, that's not a good idea. Your fingers quickly lose their suppleness and agility - that is, what suppleness and agility they still retain. So it was quite a workout to get back to playing at all well again.

I decided to tackle the Beethoven sonatas one by one, remembering that at some point in my life I'd read that Beethoven had supposedly said he never practised scales and arpeggios: learning a piece (he was probably talking about one of his pieces!) was in itself sufficient to make his fingers work. And with that in mind, I began with Sonata I and worked my way through the first book.

It was a terrible effort at first, and I felt as though I could barely play at all. But then gradually, as I worked my way from the front of the book to the back and then back again to the front, the fingers decided that they could get up and going, and now they're doing very well.

I can't say I'm playing the fast sections up to speed, and there are still innumerable moments when I have to stop and check if I'm really playing what's written (I've found a few spots where I've been playing things wrong since I was a youth!), but I'm enjoying these sonatas all over again, and have now started on the second volume. Just played through the 'Moonlight' Sonata which of course was never named that by Beethoven. In fact the last movement of it is anything but romantic moonlight. It's a major workout, and is riddled with arpeggios.

Beethoven, for the most part, wrote piano music that most people could play. Occasionally he goes crazy and writes things that are almost impossible and sometimes writes things that require a huge amount of work just to achieve something relatively simple. But surprisingly, as I play these pieces again, I find they're more straightforward than I thought. It helps that I know where most of them are going and that they're familiar, but in general he uses relatively simple means to achieve his effects.

And the slow movements are something that you're much more in tune with as you get older. I can remember as a teenager wondering what the great gaps were in one slow movement and wondering why I had to count so carefully when nothing was happening. That's something youth doesn't appreciate so readily. At my age the wondrous slowness is something you fall in love with again and again.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Antonio Rosmini: Persecuted Prophet

 This is my review of a relatively new book by Father John Michael Hill, a Rosminian who has lived in Dunedin (my home town) for many years. I first met him when he was the editor of the Catholic magazine, Tui Motu, where he often published book reviews I'd written, and we've remained friends since. He's now retired, and this book, which has probably been a long time in the making, is one of the fruits of his retirement. 

What a delight this biography is. Immensely readable from beginning to end, with both the complex historical background and Rosmini’s sometimes difficult philosophical concepts handled with deftness.  

Born in 1797, when Napoleon was at his apex, Rosmini grew up in an Italian town that had been under Austrian rule for a 100 years; it remained that way until the end of the First World War. France ruled a good deal of the rest of northern Italy, and the south was a conglomerate of territories that gave the lie to the country being in any way united. The glory that had been the Roman Empire was long gone.

Rosmini’s family were wealthy; the house he grew up was sumptuously decorated. One of his uncles was the artist, Ambrogio Rosmini, and Antonio appears as a character in one of his larger canvases. From an early age, Rosmini was a voracious reader and an outstanding intellectual, debating philosophy with others when only in his teens. Gradually he leaned towards the priesthood, which ultimately brought him into contact with Rome and the Papal court, some of whom would in due course become close friends, some enemies.

Alongside this he formed a desire to build an order of brothers. This group, begun with only a couple of companions, would eventually become the Institute of Charity, though the order is often known simply as the Rosminians. Unlike many other orders, this group wouldn’t focus on a particular area of charitable work, but would practice Rosmini’s ‘principle of passivity.’ This idea is spelled out by Rosmini in two simple sentences:

1. Not to undertake any work of charity on my own initiative but to apply myself to putting right my own life;
2. Not to refuse any work of charity when it is offered me by the providence of God and not to prefer one work to another but do them all with equal enthusiasm.

If it seems at first that there’s an element of self-centredness here, the vast number of works Rosmini and his brothers (and later, sisters) did for others over the ensuing decades give the lie to it. Rosmini always believed there was a necessity to make sure his own spiritual life was in good working order first, but once satisfied with that, he reached out generously to others.

He saw charity in three different lights: spiritual, temporal and intellectual. The spiritual was the pastoral element and meant bringing God to people. The temporal was the place where the brothers got their ‘hands dirty’, doing the ordinary work needed in a material world, both within their brotherhood and without. The intellectual was the area Rosmini felt most called to ˗ in fact he was advised by one of the Popes to focus on it since he had an enormous gift for it. Intellectual charity, for him, meant to understand and teach the truths of faith.

He wrote prodigiously throughout his lifetime: not only books but thousands of letters to people working with him, to other people in the church, to people beyond it. He had a knack of knowing what to say, especially to his brothers in the Institute: some needed a reprimand because they were overtaxing themselves and needing to consider rest; some needed to be encouraged to go beyond what they thought were their abilities. Always he wrote with compassion and wisdom.

The book is entitled Persecuted Prophet, and while this is apt, some readers may feel that the level of persecution Rosmini suffered was small compared to other saints of the church. Nevertheless, the persecution affected him at his strongest points: his intellectual and mediation skills. Like so many other prophets he eventually found himself on the wrong side of church men whose spirituality ran a distant second to their political ideas.

Rosmini could hold his own with such men, of course, but he chose to follow the example of his Master, and, having spoken the truth to them, retreated back to his brotherhood. However, some of his views on the church bore fruit much later, at the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

Though the book focuses at times on Rosmini’s intellectual arguments and discussions, it also shows his wonderful warmth and humanity. Rosmini made friends with people from all walks of life and was loved by many. He was well aware of his own failings, and this gave him a true compassion for others.

I’m grateful to Michael Hill for writing this book: it’s introduced me not only to a wonderful saint of the church, but also to a man who was human in the best sense. 

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Ronnie Ronalde: an amazing performer

I've written a couple of times over the years about Ronnie Ronalde (here and here). He was a most unusual artist, a singer and performer, but most of all, a siffleur, which is just a fancy word for a person who whistles. 

Well, you'd think that whistling was hardly anything to write home about, but so popular was Ronnie that on one occasion he filled Radio City Hall in New York every night for ten weeks (it holds 6,000 people). He toured extensively, and even gave two performances at the Aotea Centre in 1990 (when he was in his late sixties) and filled the place both times. At one time he was as popular as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. 

Ronnie died just last month at the age of 91 - I only heard about it this morning. He was from Islington in London, originally, but by the time he'd finished his life he'd lived in Guernsey, the Isle of Man, New Zealand, and the Gold Coast. 

Whistling isn't as popular as it used to be - I don't hear many kids whistling these days. But Ronnie made it such a hit that his records would be broadcast week in and week out when I was a kid. The fact that he remained popular for so long is testament to the enjoyment he brought to people.