The miraculous simplicity of Hearing Beethoven

I’m very grateful for the serendipity that led to Robin Wallace’s book even if the fate governing its creation is cruel indeed.

A shy and short-sighted musicologist named Robin married a nurse named Barbara. She was losing her hearing.  I suppose it had to happen eventually: that a student of Beethoven’s music would have a close-up experience of the life of a person who was gradually losing their hearing. As Robin observed Barbara’s fight to retain her ability to hear, her eventual deafness and the various strategies & responses in her life, it gave him insight into the composer’s comparable struggles in the 19th century, not just as a composer or pianist but as a man trying to cope.

Robin’s new book Hearing Beethoven is many things.

  • a study of the life & music of the composer Ludwig van Beethoven.
  • a memoir and love-letter to his wife Barbara
  • an insightful multi-disciplinary study of the composer & his relationship to his music, both as a pianist & as a composer
  • a wonderfully readable book (I devoured it in less than 24 hours,unable to put it down)

While I don’t believe this is a book for absolutely everyone (but then again what book is?), yet it creates a conversational space encompassing music & disability studies.  I did not expect to be sobbing while reading a book of musicology.  But it’s not just musicology, not when we’re also dealing with neuroscience, psychology, music perception & disability studies, just to mention the disciplines to which Wallace nods in the last paragraph of the book.


Professor Robin Wallace

I hate it when film critics are spoilers, giving away key plot points.  But I know I’m not giving anything away when I mention that Barbara passed away.  Robin told us about her passing early in the book.  Yet even so when we got to the climactic events of December 2011 ending her life Robin wrote an eloquent epilogue speaking of embracing wholeness, and I am now treading carefully, aware that I can’t possibly do it justice in just a few words.  Suffice it to say that the book is so much more than musicology.

I’ve long wondered about the impact of Beethoven’s deafness on his compositions.  Ever notice how playful some of them are?  The opening minutes to the last movement of the Eroica for instance –going back and forth between huge loud orchestral sounds and soft little sounds surrounded by big rests—is surely a wonderfully creation.  Now listen to it recalling that it comes from someone dealing with hearing loss. Notice how quiet it gets around sixteen seconds into the movement in this clip. And then it gets louder.  Softer. Louder.  Of course there’s more to it than just Beethoven’s hearing issues, but when seen through that lens, we see/hear it in a different light.

Is he playing with us? Maybe.

Hearing Beethoven is true to its title.  While I’m delighted to have a different perspective, a whole new way of understanding the composer, yet I think I will be different in my dealings with the people I know who are having challenges with their hearing. There are at least three in my immediate family.  This is a book to give you not just insight but genuine empathy.  I will never hear, never play, never experience music the same way again.

Wallace offers more than just the insights into the composer’s hearing issues.  For example, he makes a wonderful comparison to Mozart –another composer who was exploited by his father—before offering an insightful quotation from Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child.

Quite often we are faced here with gifted patients who have been praised and admired for their talent and their achievements… these people—the pride of their parents—should have had a strong and stable sense of self-assurance. But exactly the opposite is the case. In everything they undertake they do well and often excellently; they are admired and envied; they are successful whenever they care to be—but all to no avail.  Behind all this lurks depression, the feeling of emptiness and self-alienation, and the sense that their life has no meaning.   [Miller cited in Wallace p28]

Wallace connects this masterfully to Beethoven’s life.

In the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven was clearly struggling to construct a sense of self-worth based on his continued ability to compose, despite the humiliation caused by his failing hearing which he described in the 1801 letter to Wegeler.  If by 1812 he was once again doubting his ability, this would be more than sufficient to explain the depths of depression that he suffered during the ensuing years.  As Miller points out, such people often reach to their own children for validation, thus perpetuating the cycle.  Beethoven had no child of his own, so it is hardly surprising that he now devoted a great deal of his energy to seeking one, rather than to the increasingly challenging task of composing music.    [Wallace 29]

And then Wallace reminds us that Beethoven sought custody of his nephew Karl…

I think Wallace is correct to say that Beethoven did not fully lose his hearing, a matter that’s rather hard to prove one way or another, following up on an assertion in a 1994 article from George Thomas Ealy.  Wallace offers the de facto evidence via Beethoven’s many efforts to obtain devices to compensate, such as hearing trumpets & attachments to pianos to magnify the sound.  Although he is never as reductive as I am being in what I am about to say: one wouldn’t do that if one were completely deaf, right? Surely that means he had some hearing left, and indeed Wallace produces an enormous amount of indirect evidence suggesting that Beethoven’s hearing loss was partial & gradual rather than complete.

The book goes back and forth between chapters about Beethoven in the early 19th century, and chapters about the Wallace family drama of hearing loss.  It’s so unlike what one usually finds in musicology and I must say it’s thereby so much better than what you usually get.  I am a believer in multi-disciplinary approaches, and indeed an agnostic about much of the musicology I read, because I find it too narrow.  I’m finally reading studies of opera that get that it’s not just music but a hybrid of text & music, a medium for spectacle & movement as well as music & words, all conditioned by complex factors of cultural contexts & market forces.  The humility of Wallace’s book is not just touching but apt.  Would that more musicologists would lose their egos and instead submit to the complexity of their study.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  I want my mom to read it, I want my wife to read it.

And you should read it too.


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Funeral for Father Owen Lee Saturday, August 10th

The funeral for Father Owen Lee will take place on this Saturday, 10th August 2019 at 10 a.m. at St Basil’s Church, Bay Street at St Joseph. All lovers of music are encouraged to attend.

Although not a member of the Faculty of Music (he was a Basilian priest, and a member of the Classics Faculty at St Michael’s College) he was perhaps the most well-known and widely read musicologist at the University of Toronto.

In the citation for one of his three honorary degrees it was said that he was “perhaps the most famous faculty member at this University” beloved by an estimated eight million listeners to the Metropolitan radio broadcasts over 23 seasons. He received the University’s “outstanding teacher award”.


Fr. Owen Lee, CSB received a Doctorate of Sacred Letters from the St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology at a convocation ceremony in 1999. Photo courtesy of the University of St. Michael’s College archive.

A scholarship was endowed in his name at the Faculty of Music, by Paul and Nancy Nickle and is awarded annually to a promising student in the Opera Division.

His four short books on Wagner have become essential reading for all Wagnerians. His “Wagner, the terrible man and his truthful art” is perhaps the most read introduction to the paradoxes of Wagner’s genius. His book on Wagner’s Ring Cycle “Turning the sky around” continues to be the best-selling introduction to that monumental work, according to and his other two Wagner books, on “Wagner and the Greeks – Athena sings” and on “Die Meistersinger – the wonder of art” are full of similarly succinct and masterly insights.

His thoughts on “Parsifal” were further elaborated in his book on the meaning of Quests (“The olive-tree bed”) which also provided an inspiring Jungian interpretation of the quests of Homer’s Odysseus, Goethe’s Faust, and Virgil’s Aeneas.

His insights into the wider operatic repertoire are contained in five other music books, two of which are particularly recommendable. Father Lee’s compendium of some of his radio scripts “First intermissions – twenty one great operas explained, explored and brought to life from the Met” and his follow-up compendium containing his program notes (for a further 23 operas for a variety of performing companies) “A season of opera – from Orpheus to Ariadne” have greatly expanded our knowledge of the art form.


Announcement courtesy Iain Scott.

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SOLT, The Importance of

This afternoon I saw the closing matinee of EARNEST, The Importance of Being, presented by Summer Opera Lyric Theatre and Research Centre (aka SOLT), at the Robert Gill Theatre. It’s an operetta based on Oscar Wilde’s play with music by Victor Davies and libretto from Eugene Benson, directed by SOLT General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin.

It’s my second look at the adaptation I previously reviewed in a presentation by Toronto Operetta Theatre back in 2015 (and premiered in 2008), when I think I misread the work in my first look at it. Today I had the chance to chat with the composer during intermission.

Davies & Benson faced an interesting set of options in taking up one of the greatest comedies in English. How are we to understand genre, or more to the point, what were their aims in their adaptation? I mistakenly called the piece a musical (the implications of that headline from back in 2015) , wishing I could see it in the hands of a cast such as the outstanding students at a school such as Ryerson. But in places the women’s parts, especially the vocal challenges of Cecily, are simply beyond what you’d usually expect from a player in the realm of musical.  Oh sure, graduates are now what we’d call “triple threats”, with capabilities as actors, singers & dancers. But when you drill down on that you discover that the vocal capabilities are for a pretty voice but not necessarily the extreme skillset required of Cecily, whose part ascends to the stratosphere many times. So in other words I was wrong.

This is an operetta: because Benson & Davies were mindful of the context for Wilde’s play. One can’t help thinking of Gilbert & Sullivan while listening to this score, and not just because  G & S are roughly contemporary with Wilde. It’s a tuneful adaptation but perhaps more important, it’s deliberate. There are several places where a small pretense in the text turns into an aria or an ensemble expanding upon that little gem. A 21st century musical would never be so deliberate, as the commercial imperative would push the piece to move quicker, and in so doing, to feel less authentic. Cecily & Gwendolyn are positively Victorian in their manners, adorably detailed creations. If Davies & Benson were not quite as successful in capturing that magical essence in the men, it’s only because they get blown off the stage by these remarkable women: not just the young ones but also Miss Prism & Lady Bracknell as well.

So in other words the four female cast members today were exemplary. You couldn’t take your eyes off of Karen Bojti’s Lady Bracknell whose every movement generated hilarity with a voice & a presence that was truly larger than life. Katelyn Bird (Cecily) seems aptly named for her brilliant coloratura & precise intonation, while Anika-France Forget (Gwendolyn) was an effective contrast, every bit as playful & vocally impressive.  Stephanie O’Leary has her moments too as Miss Prism, especially in her big scene near the end of the piece

Perhaps most important, the operetta is quite a funny piece of work that had me laughing out loud throughout. The adaptation doesn’t lose the wit of the original, and director Silva-Marin gave his cast lots of great business to illuminate the text.  Whatever the abilities of this cast — and they range from beginner to expert –Silva-Marin ensures that they all look good even when we can see that the performer is just learning how to act: so that the illusion is compelling & absorbing.  We get a great piece of theatre.

SOLT are a force training young singing talent for the world of opera. I put that headline on there, playing with the operetta’s title as I contemplate the future for Guillermo Silva-Marin. My mind is thinking of succession planning for at least a couple of reasons:

  • Because it’s something we’re looking at within my own organization
  • Because Alexander Neef is now known to be leaving the Canadian Opera Company, and speculation has begun as to his successor with the COC
  • Because in the lobby there was a mysterious lobby display with balloons mentioning retirement. I was asked about it, and I don’t think it’s for Guillermo (as far as I know) but rather from the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies, –the home department at University of Toronto in the Robert Gill Theatre– and who hosted a retirement reception for a professor back in May.
    That’s my best guess.

I was looking at his many accomplishments on Guillermo’s website, including

  • founder of Toronto Operetta Theatre in 1985 (34 years ago)
  • founder of Summer Opera Lyric Theatre in 1986 (33 year ago)
  • And General Director of Opera in Concert since 1994 (25 years ago)

If he were to decide he’s had enough and walked away from his tripartite career who would take over at the helm of his many important activities? SOLT? Opera in Concert? Toronto Operetta Theatre? I don’t have any answer, and indeed I hope I don’t seem impertinent for mentioning this. But SOLT (like TOT & Opera in Concert) is an important organization. We need for all three to continue.


Guillermo Silva-Marin, General Director of SOLT

I am tempted to sing the blessing from Turandot that’s addressed to the Emperor.  God bless Guillermo.

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Song of the Earth

I can’t help noticing symmetry in 2019’s Toronto Summer Music and its Beyond Borders theme.

The Festival opened July 12th with a concert featuring a Mozart sonata including the famous rondo “alla Turca” and a 20th century song cycle in a reduction to a smaller –sized ensemble. Tonight in the last TSM concert at Koerner Hall a Mozart concerto bearing the epithet “Turkish” and another 20th century song cycle presented in a reduced form would seem to bookend the Festival for us.

And both concerts were extraordinary.

Tonight we heard a reduced version of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (aka The Song of the Earth) a work for two singers normally with a large orchestra. In this reduction begun by Arnold Schoenberg in the decade following Mahler’s death, and only finished by Rainer Riehn in 1983, we encounter a new set of parameters for the six songs of the cycle, not unlike what we heard in the reduced “Four Last Songs” premiered last month. I think it becomes a new composition with different requirements, a different kind of balance & dynamics, amenable to lighter voices.


Mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb

We heard soloists Rihab Chaieb and Mario Bahg, the ensemble led by conductor Gemma New. The Schoenberg-Riehn score is for about 14 players (2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, harmonium, piano, percussion(2), horn, flute/piccolo, oboe/English horn, clarinet(s), bassoon), most if not all called upon to function as virtuoso soloists. There are no easy parts, indeed some are extremely challenging. Add to that the brisk tempi New took—especially in the wildest parts of “Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty)”—and you’re seeing something rare. With the usual orchestration that fast middle part of the song can be a loud murky mess (sorry Gustav), with its overtones of sexual violence: but New and Chaieb were crisp & precise, giving it a hair-raising ride. Is it heresy to suggest that this version fixes a part of the cycle that needs to be fixed? Perhaps.  At this moment Mahler captures the battle between yin & yang, perfect order confronted with a big noise, reflection vs action: just like life itself.   If we are to understand that the reduced version aimed for clarity, it’s fair to say that that goal was achieved, as inner voices came through as never before.

(morning after thought… deconstruction/analysis take us inside a work leading us to understand it better. Students used to be asked to paraphrase & reduce works as part of their study. Playing a piano reduction for instance gives you a sense of the interplay of voices that’s invaluable…DITTO hearing a new version like this one)

It was a great pleasure watching New’s direction, her body language so articulate as to seem to paint the music in the air before her.  This was a fast & dynamic interpretation, one that deserves to be heard again.


Gemma New (Fred Stucker Photography)

Bahg too has a remarkable voice with a gorgeous colour and fabulous legato, that he mostly kept in check in matching the dynamics of the ensemble. From time to time he unfurled a big gorgeous note especially up top.  Both soloists easily filled the space with their sound, articulating words & expressing the text clearly. These songs were the best thing I heard in the 2019 Festival.  I’m dying to hear it again.

Jonathan Crow has been everywhere in TSM, both as the Artistic Director and often as the star, and tonight he had me wondering if this was a bridge too far given that he was in effect playing exposed solos all night. Yet except for a few moments in the opening movement of the Mozart, when he was perhaps just getting warmed up, Crow continued to impress with his agile sound & full tone. In the first half of the concert we heard 3 movements that got better and better. I think it’s fair to say that the third movement was the one that really excited Crow, both for its quirky inter-cultural overtones (in keeping with the Festival’s theme after all) and for the challenges it posed.

The Festival concludes this weekend.

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Crow Comes Out

Tonight’s concert at Walter Hall –“Europe and the New World”—in the Toronto Summer Music Festival put artistic director Jonathan Crow into the spotlight.  He seems very comfortable there.

That’s what I’m getting at with the headline. Our concert was sold out, the audience buzzing with excitement.  We watched violinist Crow and pianist Philip Chiu play a series of pieces from either side of the Atlantic.

The young concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony with the matinee idol looks also has wit & charm to burn, as we saw between pieces tonight.  And with this year’s festival he’s arriving as a genuine star in this city.


Toronto Summer Music Artistic Director Jonathan Crow

There were four items on the program plus an encore.

  • Brahms’s Scherzo in C minor
  • César Franck’s Sonata for violin & piano
  • Heifetz’s arrangements of five selections from Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess for violin & piano
  • Corigliano’s Sonata for violin & piano

Crow introduced the encore with a dedication to Toronto Symphony’s longtime manager Walter Homburger, who passed away a few days ago at the age of 95.


Walter Homburger, onetime manager of the Toronto Symphony, who passed away this week.

For the second time in the past few days, a TSM concert encore featured a piece by Healey Willan, namely his Romance.

Chiu was very much Crow’s equal throughout even if we may be a bit more familiar with Crow.  In the Brahms I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of weight he used, especially in a series of triplet eruptions, resembling a galloping rhythm.  It was a great omen for a concert requiring a pianist to take the stage and not merely “accompany” the soloist.


Pianist Philip Chiu

The Franck sonata is perhaps best known for its finale featuring a melody that gets passed back and forth between the two instruments.  I was amused watching Chiu turn his head to watch Crow before some of their entries, a remarkable feat even if he weren’t also playing as well.

After the interval it was Gershwin’s turn via Heifetz’s stunning arrangements.  Chiu gave a recommendation to the audience that tempted me to stand up –big mouth that I am—because he was telling people they need to go see Porgy & Bess.

I’m surprised he didn’t mention that it’s featured on February 1st 2020 in this season’s Metropolitan Opera high-definition broadcasts, starring two singers seen in Toronto, namely Angel Blue (seen in last season’s La boheme) and Eric Owens (seen in Hercules a few seasons back).

What we heard tonight were those wonderful tunes, via Crow’s violin.  Heifetz’s brilliance was able to turn a duet (“Bess you is my woman now”) into a virtuoso violin solo, Chiu’s piano grounding the violin with the necessary jazziness.

To close we were dazzled by Corigliano’s sonata, a work Crow rightly described as having “many notes”. Oh yes, and they were played with fire & passion.

Toronto Summer Music is in its last week.

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New beginnings in snakeskin

It has been a week of new beginnings.

Today was Benjamin Kidd’s ordination. As of Saturday July 27th he is no longer a student. I wonder if we’re now supposed to call him “Reverend Ben”? Perhaps that comes out as #RevBen in the world of hashtags.

I wore a shirt that for me symbolizes new beginnings. I recall being a bit scared to wear it to church when I first saw it, recalling the Biblical characterization of snakes.


But maybe snakes deserve second chances? I know I have taken to this shirt now that I see it as an avatar of rebirth, of new beginnings.

I’ve said little about the flood in our house, although yes it’s been a factor in my comparatively quiet spring this year. It’s almost as though I’ve been AWOL for the spring of 2019, compared to past years.

  2017 2018 2019
April 18 15 15
May 16 10 8
June 9 12 8
July 11 8 4
Totals 54 45 35

It has been a challenging spring, this 2019 version.

You may recall my tale of the tick, reporting a bite inflicted several months ago. I didn’t speak of the new dog Samantha (aka “Sam”), new in the sense of “new to us” although she’s 11 or 12 years old. Being a rescue it’s hard to know her precise age. But she’s amazing, often lying underneath the piano while I’m playing. She’s smart enough to know: flattery will get you everywhere, especially if you’re a dog.


If Sam seems a bit blurry it’s because she’s actually reflected in the surface of the piano.

And we had a flood. While we’ve been blessed, fortunate in our insurance coverage, that doesn’t change the disruption we’ve endured the past few months.

Last week we took the first delivery of boxes returning to us from storage including CDs, DVDs, music books, all sort of things we had to live without since the end of March. They arrived on our anniversary, a lovely coincidence that reinforces my sense of new beginnings: new beginnings for Ben, a new life for Sam, and for us as well.

I will gradually return to a more active life, although yes, I still have lots to unpack & organize. The scores aren’t yet in alphabetical order, nor the DVDs.

Of course I did alphabetize the CDs.


The mysterious dark one is an interview with Jon Vickers.

I am just basking in the afterglow of Ben’s ordination service, that included a very wacky postlude. I cobbled together a medley of tunes based on Ben’s requests (via Facebook), because of his past associations with the Canadian Forces.

This includes

  • Logistics – (March of the logistics branch)
  • Medical – (Farmers boy)
  • Chaplain – (Ode to joy)

And so here’s how it went.

1) We start with “Joyful joyful we adore thee” (aka the ode to joy from Beethoven’s 9th) in G, and forgive me for presupposing that you know that tune.

2) The Farmer’s Boy in B-flat (G being the relative minor to B flat, in other words easy to segue)

3) March of the Logistics branch in E-flat (a natural, especially when the first notes of this march start on that B-flat)

4) …and knowing that Ben loves Star Wars, we did a little segue into the rebellion’s theme in C Minor (the relative minor to E flat)

5) And to finish we go to the Ode to Joy (Joyful joyful we adore thee) in C (major this time) with a big AMEN to finish.

Bridging each segment I let the fanfares from the Star Wars Throne Room scene (near the end of Episode 4) to serve as the natural glue to attach each segment to the next.

I think there’s a party tonight, but I had to get home to look in on Sam, who had been alone all afternoon.  12 years old, when translated into dog years? (7 years for each human year). Do the math.

She’s older than me, that’s for sure.

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Voices Across the Atlantic

The title “Voices Across the Atlantic” could refer to compositional voices or singing voices. You had Barber & Willan from our side of the pond, Brahms, Britten & Monteverdi from the other. Ditto for the performing talent, coming from many places far & near.

Such was tonight’s iteration of the Toronto Summer Music theme “Beyond Borders” venturing beyond the other festival venues clear across Bloor Street to the congenial space of Church of the Redeemer.

And it was extraordinary, professionals at different stages of their careers:

Charles-Daniels-Credit-Annelies-van-der-Vegt (002)

Tenor Charles Daniels (photo: Annelies van der Vegt)

  • Masters of the vocal art such as tenor Charles Daniels and counter-tenor Daniel Taylor (also conducting and being a wonderfully informal host)
  • Steven Philcox, one of Canada’s pre-eminent artists of collaborative vocalism, and a co-founder of the Canadian Art Song Project, at the keyboard
  • And Toronto Summer Music Fellows, a talented young group including baritone Clarence Frazer, who has made a huge impression locally (for example in Canadian Stage’s Miss Julie or more recently in the Tapestry /Opera on the Avalon co-production of Shanawdithit) while still in the first decade of his career.

Baritone Clarence Frazer

Yet everything was done in that most Canadian way, without any sense of ego or flashiness. For the audience it was an impeccable performance while for the musicians it was an opportunity for collaboration of the highest sort.

Here’s the program:

  • Benjamin Britten: Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac Op 51
  • Samuel Barber: Dover Beach, Op 3
  • Johannes Brahms: Four Quartets, Op 92
  • Benjamin Britten: Canticle IV: The Journey of the Magi, Op 86 (TS Eliot)
  • Claudio Monteverdi:
    • Si ch’io vorrei morire SV 89
    • Adoramus te, Christe SV 289
    • Lamento della ninfa SV 163
    • Beatus Vir SV 268
  • (encore) Healey Willan: “Rise up, my love, my fair one” motet #5

There was no intermission, and refreshments were offered right after the performance.

The Britten Canticles are dramas without staging, for the virtual theatre of the mind’s eye. Where the first one is solemn, the voice of God uncanny as a blend of the two high male voices and the urgent dialogue of father & son, the second with its playful text by TS Eliot is more ironic and distanced from anything overtly sacred, and feels forever timely. For the first we were treated to the blend of the Daniels’s, where the latter added the extra warmth of Frazer’s baritone. And Frazer gave a warm reading of the Barber, Arnold’s being another text that feels brand new when juxtaposed against current events.

We heard another sort of vocalism in the Brahms quartets, as two different quartets of TSM vocal Fellows each sang a pair of the lovely compositions. To close we were going back & forth between secular & sacred texts set by Monteverdi, with Willan’s motet casting the deciding vote in harmony with the church space: although the Song of Solomon would almost seem to erase any boundary between sacred or secular (speaking of “crossing borders“).

Don’t get the wrong impression, the young performers are accomplished early-career professionals not students.  And they’re performing again this weekend as part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival.

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