Alma Deutscher, Classical Composer

Alma Deutscher is a 12 year old girl who is a child prodigy. She wrote an opera Cinderella¬†which is available for free with a free account on, and I HIGHLY recommend watching it if you can find the time. Its about two and a half hours, you can break it up. She wrote the libretto as well as the music by herself. It has premiered in Vienna and also in the United States. I’ve seen plenty of “child prodigies” playing Flight of the Bumble Bee on the internet, but this is different.

Her parents, get this, have Ph.D’s from Cambridge, her father in linguistics and her mother in Old English. They live outside of London in the countryside, and they homeschool their kids. Her father ran into a book that kind of straddles the two genres of linguistics and music by Robert Gjerdingen called Music in the Galant Style that gave him the idea of having her learn music in a different way than the standard, test oriented culture of British musical education. Gjerdingen outlines his theory that in the 18th century, music was heard differently, similarly to the way manners were understood differently. There was a system of tropes, or basic formulas, which could be executed with varying degrees of taste, and the listener was to judge the elegance of the compositional execution. What to us all sounds the same was in fact a very refined system of elocutions where one note could make the difference between sound and poor judgment. The way composers learned to write so much music was not that they had superlative amounts of talent, though many of them did, but rather that they were schooled in these tropes with a kind of musical fill-in-the-blank system of pedagogy known as partimento. A partimento might give you some notes to work with, and you had to come up with what notes might sound good with the ones presented. They range from relatively simple to extremely complex, with entire fugues capable of being constructed from just one line of music given in a partimento exercise. The important thing is that there are always several possibilities, and the student learns how to put the fragments and tropes together (the original meaning of composition). So Guy Deutscher got the idea that this way of teaching from Italy in the 18th century sounded like a good way to educate his daughter, who was already very talented from the beginning. And now she writes operas. I think they are on to something. I am currently poring over Gjerdingen’s book, not so that I can write great operas (I’m not that talented) but so that maybe someone I teach someday will be able to.

If you watch or read any interviews with Alma, a theme will always reappear: she reads copiously and her parents keep her as far from screens as possible. She has her own imaginary world which reminds me very much of C.S. Lewis’s that he describes in Surprised by Joy. She listens to the melodies which the characters in that world create, and then she picks the ones she likes to put into her music. I think that no matter how talented a child is in music or anything else, they should all be allowed to have an imagination. If we can keep screens out of their way for long enough, this birthright will be theirs.

Maybe you shouldn’t show your kids the opera because its on a screen. You can decide on that one.


G.K. Chesterton on the New Year

“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective. Unless a man starts on the strange assumption that he has never existed before, it is quite certain that he will never exist afterwards. Unless a man be born again, he shall by no means enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

From Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton

Classical Radio

I decided I am into the radio. Now it is not very important to me whether it be sent by electromagnetic waves or the internet, but the way that it works has some very strong points in its favor. You don’t get to control when it starts or stops. The programming just runs, whether you catch it or not. The world does not revolve around us. You also do not get to pick what is on it. Of course you can choose the station, but not the content. This is bowing to someone else’s decision about what is important for you to hear (assuming they are not merely trying to manipulate you, which is likely). Once upon a time there was such a thing as a local radio station rather than a syndicated behemoth, but I am not sure whether such things any longer exist. If they do, I think that is a good thing too, because not every place in the whole world should be the same. Currently, I am into KMFA, Austin’s classical music radio station. There is sadly no classical radio station in Houston, so this will have to serve as local enough. I have little experience with different classical radio stations but so far this one is good. Its a good mix, very little non-music time, and most importantly of all they do not just play an endless stream of justly forgotten Baroque music. It may be bizarre and strangely surreal to hear in the 21st century Telemann’s cousin’s 234th oboe concerto performed by a pick-up group of musicians called the Academy of Prehistoric Music, but it is not very satisfying as a steady diet. Phoenix, sadly, I am looking at you.

Having to pick one’s own music to listen to can be tiring. For me, every decision I have to make in a day contributes to how exhausted I feel at the end of it. There are things that I would never pick but which I probably should hear and its good to have it mixed in with other stuff I would have picked if I had known about it. But it takes someone smart to do this, and right now KMFA Austin is doing a good job.

The Pilgrim’s Progress: by Vaughan Williams

So it turns out that Ralph Vaughan Williams, the great British composer of the first half of the twentieth century, wrote a now forgotten opera based on Bunyan’s great work the Pilgrim’s Progress. I am going through a piano reduction copy I managed to acquire from the fine library collection of the University of Arkansas (universities really are remarkable things, whatever their drawbacks), and its quite an impressive work. It has a huge casting, which probably has made it unnecessarily impractical to stage, and its overtly spiritual content probably makes it a little too moral for contemporary artistic tastes. Vaughan Williams himself was of course a cheerful agnostic, and the main character’s name is switched to the more generic “Pilgrim” to fit this more metaphorical frame of mind. However, in this day and age of looking for lost or forgotten masterworks of the classical music repertory, I hope more listeners and performers may draw their attention to this piece of very heartfelt Vaughan Williams on a large scale. I haven’t dug into recordings of the work yet but they probably exist, and for us anglophones there is no language barrier.

Music and Transportation

I was reading an essay in a collection of contributions by great Russian piano teachers of the last century, and there was a striking recommendation. By way of background, it is very common in music circles to talk about mental practicing, which just means going through the music you are working on in your head away from the instrument. But something one doesn’t usually think of is when one is supposed to do this. As if it were as plain as day, it was recommended that of course the best time to do mental practicing, which is essential to artistic development, is while you are walking. You know, from one place to another, or on some quiet path somewhere. So I tried it, since it was still summer, and I walked to school to practice instead of biking with earbuds in. I began to very deeply resent the usage of fossil fuels for cars, trucks, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, etc. But there are some quieter neighborhoods on my way and I have to say it was some of the best mental practicing I have ever done, and I could hear Chopin’s Third Piano Sonata quite clearly in my mind.

Tchaikovsky in a letter wrote once that he longed for the lifestyle when he had time to walk, whereas he was too busy and had to rush around to make his engagements. Why is New York City of all places the mecca of music?

There is an anecdote that Beethoven included a little horn call fan fare in one of his sonatas because he was walking through the woods and heard hunters chasing through on horses in the distance.

When Bach was I think still a teenager, he walked all the way by himself from south Germany to the north, some couple hundred miles, simply to hear the great organist Buxtehude play. I wonder what he heard along the way, internally and externally.

In the business building on campus at Rice University, there is a beautiful reading room that someone clued me in to. Large spacious tables, long library shelves (full of books about self-actualization, I will grant) and no cell phones even allowed in. So quiet that the crinkle of my clothes as I leaned down echoed. A room full of people successfully thinking, because one can hardly even help it when it is that quiet. This was the business building. What was it Uncle Screwtape said about noise?

On correction

Why is it so hard to accept what someone else says, even if it is right? In issues of morality as well as thought I sometimes find this to be true. I think it is because when one listens to someone else, one becomes a servant. If someone points something out to you, and you change your behavior, they can tell you what to do. Even in less moral and more intellectual or aesthetic confrontations of the mildest kind, when someone says they like Rachmaninoff and you know in your heart that you adore Rachmaninoff but you recognize that it is bad taste to admit this too earnestly in public, as if it were confessing to who you had a crush on in middle school, and you have to distinguish yourself through some more knowing and worldly-wise reference. To agree is to be undistinguished, unless it is agreement which secures one’s place in the inner circle about which C.S. Lewis has spoken.

We think the truth belongs to us, and it has to come out of our own mouths. In classrooms, everyone waits until they can say something sufficiently clever to maintain the facade that they completely understand what is being discussed, and no one touches what they might not yet fully grasp, or dares to risk misunderstanding. But why not risk it, for the sake of your classmates? Why not be wrong, so that someone else can be right, and everyone will see more clearly for it? Does one learn to swim by only submerging one’s shins? Can one learn to dance by oneself?

The other half of the coin is also relevant: why don’t people ever seem to listen to us when we are right? Why doesn’t the pot smoker just stop, why doesn’t that family member just let go of that habit we’ve been reminding them about for years? Many things are going on here, but one of them is that it would be fatal to our characters to know that we can change people and tell them what to do. We are not God, we don’t have that power, and anytime we think otherwise the world is very quick on the draw to remind us that that is a lie.

Truth is out there, outside of our minds, and its public. As a matter of the plainest practical reality, if the students in a classroom or the family members in a dispute do not believe that the truth is only reached through conversations in which you are frequently wrong, truth will not be approached. The Lord is the creator of all, and he became man to become the servant of all. We are not lords, and our Lord distinguished himself through being like us in all ways except sin. We can afford to let other people be right.

Devotionals with Kant

“On the contrary, it is plain that the hope of a future life arises from the feeling, which exists in the breast of every man, that the temporal is inadequate to meet and satisfy the demands of his nature.”

From the introduction to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason.

I have begun to try to wade through this book and came upon this edifying little spark. It’s like C.S. Lewis’ argument from desire, without the heat. According to what I have found biographically, Kant was actually a very engaging lecturer, and worked as an unsalaried but successful teacher for some time, if you can imagine that. He also taught at the same school in K√∂nigsberg for forty-odd years, turning down a much more prestigious poetry (!) position in Berlin in the middle of his career. I think he knew he was going to turn the world upside down and running around Europe chasing glamorous positions wasn’t going to help with that. For some reason, even though I’m not sure what to make of the effect of his labors, I found that quite inspiring.

Disclaimer: I make no promises to actually finish this book and reserve the right to toss it to the floor if the going gets rough.