BBBrrr!

January 26, 2017

It’s not a bad attempt at a Will Shortz-type of puzzle. It’s just that it’s probably a bit too specialized for a Weekend Edition Sunday audience, and perhaps even for an average classical music audience. Those listeners might feel a little out in the cold with it. But it’s fun, so I wanted to share it with the blog audience after having presented it on Classic Mornings

There are 3 famous Bs in classical music. In other words, 3 famous composers whose last names begin with a “B” are considered THE 3 Bs, even though there are lots of classical music composers whose last names begin with “B.” The composer of the piece in question, whose last name does begin with a “B,” is not one of THE 3 Bs. But this particular piece took on 3 Bs of a different sort almost 3 quarters of a century after he wrote it.  (I have to add a hint for the version in print since I can’t play you the somewhat familiar piece of music. So let’s say I played a somewhat lively excerpt from a famous 19th century Russian composer’s well-known string quartet.) Who is the composer? What are those 3 Bs? And by the way, do you know who THE 3 Bs are?  I’ll provide the answers at the end of the blog post.

While that puzzle slowly came to mind, it made me admire all the more those who invent puzzles and games on a regular basis. Earlier this week on Classic Mornings, we paid tribute to a different kind of inventor. Oftentimes inventors are individuals who are innovative in their fields. The inventor we remembered was a Field – John Field – an Irish pianist and composer (1782-1837). January 23rd marked the 180th anniversary of his passing.

So what was his invention? You could say he brought night to day – or to night, depending on when you play or listen to those peaceful, song-like piano pieces that sometimes remind you of the tranquility of the night and which are titled “nocturnes.”  Yes, it’s John Field who is called the “father of the nocturne.”  It’s not as though Field had a patent on the nocturne.  He was the first to call such piano miniatures nocturnes. 

At age 11, Field became an apprentice to pianist/composer Muzio Clementi – whose 265th birthday anniversary happened to be on the same day. Not only did Field study with Clementi, but he travelled throughout Europe with his teacher.  In his many recitals and concerts Field demonstrated his invention – the nocturne, while also demonstrating pianos for Clementi, who was a piano manufacturer as well. You might say Clementi had a field day with the young pianist working for him. But they say it was Field’s musical experimenting with the improvements in piano technology that enabled him to write with all the nuances that characterize his nocturnes.

Irish pianist John O’Conor has championed Field’s music over the years as well as that of Field’s better known contemporary, Ludwig van Beethoven. O’Conor, who turned 70 on January 18th, won the International Beethoven Competition in 1973 and has recorded the complete piano sonatas and piano concertos of Beethoven. 

Though he’s come to be a Beethoven and Field specialist, there was a time when he couldn’t afford to be selective. I came upon a 2015 interview with Emer Nestor in Final Note Magazine in which O’Conor talked about having to pay for his own music education at University College Dublin. He was supposed to study accounting and take over his uncle’s business.  His mother was opposed to his choosing music for a career and guessed that the “piano-playing nonsense” would pass.  O’Conor had no choice but to play every gig he could. He would accompany ballet classes or students performing as a part of their exams. Today he works with young performers as a teacher and as a juror at international competitions, including the Dublin International Piano Competition, which he co-founded.

A number of years ago O’Conor revealed that Irish traditional music has been a part of his life since he was a child. Though he had said for years that it was the domain of groups like The Chieftains to interpret and perform that music, when The Chieftains began to explore other types of music, O’Conor decided it was time for him to do the same. About 7 years ago he made a recording of Irish tunes in arrangements for piano and orchestra (Warren Schatz Classics 14).  So whether it’s Beethoven or Field, Jigs or Reels, O’Conor is still warming the hearts of listeners on cold winter nights.

If that question about the 3 Bs still leaves you cold, the tune of the 2nd movement of the 2nd string quartet of Russian composer Alexander Borodin (who is not one of the “3 Bs”) was used in the 1953 musical Kismet, when it acquired the lyrics of Robert Wright & George Forrest and the title: Baubles, Bangles and Beads (3 Bs)  THE “3 Bs” of classical music are Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.


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