Marmots and their Orchestral Rationale: Part II

INTRO: They say that pigeons develop odd and repetitive behaviours (such as hopping on one foot) should you feed them pellets at random intervals, presumably made of seed or some such food that pigeons like. The theory here is that they believe whatever they happened to be doing at the time triggered the pellet dispensing and if they manage to do it again (in just the right manner) then they will get more pellets. When the next one inevitably arrives it simply reinforces the behaviour and the cycle continues ad infinitum.

HYPOTHESIS: Anyway, it has been over two years since the early days of this blog and I thought it’s a spectacular time to revisit my inaugural rant about orchestral repertoire. I actually had attempted this about one year ago but it remained in draft from and I think now time and some more far-reaching data can provide a three-dimensional-time-instalment on the topic! Basically, we will look at the concert series for 2013 not only of the original Australian orchestra but three separate seasons of another very well-known orchestra in the UK and see what’s what.

METHODOLOGY: The pieces played fall into categories of:

  1. Works by popular European Composers
  2. Works by unpopular European Composers
  3. Works by popular non-European Composers
  4. Works by unpopular non-European Composers

A word from the recapping porpoise:

Recapping Porpoise

The definitions of European and non-European is quite simple but the former includes Russia (as part of a highly integrated ‘Western’ music culture). The definition of ‘popular’ I probably defined earlier in my last rationale post, but for apathy’s sake will re-make it up here and then for obsessive-compulsiveness’s sake compare afterwards anyway, (to test my own consistency).

Popular composer (My 2013 Definition): “A composer who is mainstream enough to be known by a regular concert going audience and can be expected to appear regularly (anywhere from extremely frequently to once every few years) in an orchestral concert series.”

Popular composer (My 2011 Definition): “A well-known composer (Beethoven, Mozart, etc) that a typical Classical concert-going audience could expect to hear every few years or so.”

Close enough! Anyway now we are all on the same (web)page here are the results:


For the original Australian Orchestra:

Original Orchestra ANew Orchestra AWell that’s slightly more promising 70.3% of the series (down from 81.8%) made up of  European classical standards.

Now let’s take a peak of three 6-month seasons of the UK orchestra.

January 2012 to June 2012

1st Season Orchestra B

July 2012 to December 2012

2nd Season Orchestra B

January 2013 to June 2013

3rd Season Orchestra B

This is a little bleaker…

Just a little bit

The percentages chronologically here are 93.4%, 90.4% and 85.5%. Although it’s a slight downward trend the average is still 89.8% of the repertoire is typical European, and in one and a half years only one non-popular, non-European composer is featured.

CONCLUSIONS: I’ve been wondering a little recently about what would happen if orchestras (or classical artists in general) dropped the facade of being part of a ‘living tradition’ and dedicated themselves only to playing what is considered the classical music canon. With this repertoire already making up around 90% of a season (or much more if you include the popular non-Europeans) I doubt the regular concert-going audiences would complain or even notice if it was upped to 100%.

It seems to me that when these orchestras explore or innovate its out of begrudging tokenism and perhaps it would be healthy to say/admit “Wait, this is for all intents and purposes a museum-culture (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and you should go elsewhere if you’re not a part of that.” I think modern composers deserve better then to be lining up for meagre pellet distribution from a culture that is demonstrably against them… it is not good for one’s mental state. Or maybe perhaps what I mean is they should rebuke the insinuation that they are the latest edition of the classical ‘tradition’ and instead be seeking to be relevant to other groups who may be more interested rather than forcing new things on a audience obsessed with the past.

CODA:  The humble pigeon is actually quite exceptional for a commonplace bird*, unlike the ibis, which is unexceptional for a much-worshiped deity symbol. Look them up. Yes, both of them. And remember, nothing says ‘Deutsch touristischen’ more emphatically** than excitedly taking photos of the colloquial dump-birds.

You can even eat them!

*You can even eat them!

**This is not strictly true… a LOT of things say ‘Deutsch touristischen’ emphatically, not least themselves.

It Would be Unimaginative to Make This Title a Pun on ‘Liszt’

Throughout history and beyond, there has been a relentless stream of musically prodigious acts in almost all disciplines, and the field of music has in no way been lacking. Beethoven himself was said to have composed the Ninth Symphony at the age of nine while floating in a lake. That is not strictly true,* but more of a literal misunderstanding of the scene towards the end of Immortal Beloved. Yet it proves the point that some of the legends surrounding musical giants are allegorical; the truth is harvested from the cocoa tree of reality, crushed and fermented by the dual catalysts of 19th century sensationalism and controversy, roasted by flamboyant business acumen and finally undergoing the conching process of time. The result is a smooth and tasty confectionary that does not at all resemble the hard, bitter pod of its origins.

*At all.

Anyway, many of these super-human feats by musicians are indeed true, or in the case of earlier, un-verifiable-by-NASA generations, generally unprovable to not be true. People can be clever sometimes, and so I don’t doubt the plausibility of something like (W.A) Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere after one hearing.

Crest of the NASA Anagram Society

Crest of the NASA Acronym Society Addicts

However, in 2006 I was reading the Alan Walker biographies of Liszt and as one can probably imagine, here was a composer whose reputation was built on much Paganini-esque mystique.

Yet among it all, an incident recorded herein caught my doubt and curiosity. Strangely it was not regarding Liszt whose accounts and legends troubled me so, but one of his students, Ernesztina Kramer (1864-1936). Thanks to our friends at The Internet, here’s the account in question:

Of special interest are the recollections of Ernesztina Kramer, who was Liszt’s student for three years from 1882 to 1885. Ernestina had been an infant prodigy, and by the time she was ten years old she was a student of Erkel at the academy. The day dawned when she, like others before her, was introduced to Liszt. He asked her to play something, and since she had been specialising in the music of Schumann, he suggested one of the latter’s sonatas. Nervous and trembling, the poor girl lost her composure and started to play the sonata a semitone high. Liszt did not interrupt her, but let her continue in the wrong key to the end of the piece. The girl then noticed what she had done and cried out: “My God! How unfortunate I am! I can play anything in any key, and that is what happened here.” Liszt consoled her and said: “My child, thousands would be happy to be so unfortunate” (1997, p. 297, Walker).

Artist's Impression

Artist’s Impression

While this is a throwaway anecdote tangentially related to a man who frequently imbibed from his well-stocked cellar of anecdotes, this raised a lot of questions. Here are some doubts I’ve been festering for the last six years:

  • This is Ernesztina’s own account which doesn’t seem to have been echoed anywhere else… and neither does she really (at least in the digital realm).
  • Despite being an 18 year-old prodigy (assuming she saw him soon before he started teaching her), she didn’t notice the tactile, pianistic implications of the ‘unconscious’ transposition, nor the harmonic implications. Which kind of means she performed music entirely thinking only about relative intervals. Not the note, key or chord names, not the absolute pitches, and not even the feel of the piano under the hands (and a semitone higher is a long way in circle-of-fifth world).
  • Again despite being a prodigy, she had a loss of composure at an activity she’d be doing since birth.
  • Again despite being a prodigy and apparently having excellent relative pitch skills, she did not notice it sounded a semitone high.
  • Again despite being a prodigy, and well aware she could ‘play anything in any key’ did not seem to have been told at any point in her history that this was in fact a talent.
  • Furthermore she seemed under the impression it was a curse.
  • Ernesztina did not go on to have a career significant enough to be noted by our friends at The Internet over a century later. Which is a post-humous death sentence.

Anyway those are the bulk of my concerns. Could something like this really happen? Put it this way: I’d happily believe it if she trounced into the room, sat down at the piano, spat heavily and quipped “Pick a piece, Monsieur Liszt. And while you’re at it the key too.” People are clever sometimes, we’ve established that. But generally not simultaneously clever and yet blundering along with massively fundamental and basic mistakes and then not even recognise the resultant phenomenal feat as anything other than ‘misfortune.’ It seems such a talent is negated by a lot of weirdness about the situations.

One other thing. It seems that alternative explanations either partially or completely discredit her story, there’s no realistic, middle-ground explanation. To wit:

The Idealist says: Ernesztina’s account is true and she was raised by a wild pack of absolute-pitch-hating wolves in order to develop her abilities. And then rescued by another pack of relative-pitch hating wolves to repress them. It has been known to happen.

The Optimist says: Ernesztina could play transpositions intuitively, but on this occasion did so deliberately and only pretended it was a mistake so as to appear humble.

The Realist says: I don’t know. I’m still watching the perfect-pitch dog video.

The Pessimist says: Ernesztina went and learned the Schumann sonata a semitone higher. Then pretended she believed it was a horrible upsetting mistake/curse so Liszt wouldn’t make her try it in other keys to verify her talent.

The Cynicist says: It probably didn’t happen at all. Aaaaand there’s no evidence other than a self-account. But if there’s one thing to be gleaned from history its that people don’t ever lie about themselves.

Are there other considerations missing? I’d certainly like to know! Of course, humans are capable of spontaneous transposition and even more amazing things, but if they’re talented enough to do it subconsciously, they should probably also have the much lesser observational abilities to be able to realise they’re doing it. And even if not, to recognise or have been told at some point it’s more of a super-power.

Well, now I feel somewhat bad that I’ve stayed up to 1:30 am to rant about and criticise the account of a long-dead woman I’ve never met who left no discernible mark on the world save a paragraph in Alan Walker’s biography about someone else. However, she can rest easier knowing that now when people google “Ernesztina Kramer” (with the quotations) they’ll get a third result. Thousands would be happy to be so unfortunate.