There’s a skit I remember from Sesame Street in which Kermit the Frog is interviewing a piano player who is struggling to play a song. Every time he gets one line down, he can’t figure out what to do next, and in his despair he faceplants into the keyboard with a discordant KLONNNGGG! I remembered this skit vividly as I struggled to learn a new piano piece throughout the month of January. It is now early February and I’m still barely halfway through it. I haven’t faceplanted yet—I’m not a Muppet so my head isn’t made of foam—but I’ve mashed my fists into the keys many, many times. I have five fingers on each hand, not four, yet I’m still somehow doing even worse than the Sesame Street pianist.
The piece I’m working on is Franz Liszt’s Liebestraum, and I got it in my head to learn to play it for my father, as it’s one of his favorite pieces of piano music. “When Franklin Roosevelt died, the classical music radio station played this, and only this, the entire day of his funeral,” he informed me the first time I heard it. I suppose it must have been FDR’s favorite piece of music too, though I’m sure it wasn’t the DJ’s after that. Even if you don’t know or like so-called “classical music,” you’ve probably heard this one. It’s moody and dramatic, often appearing on “Best Loved Piano Music” albums with “Moonlight Sonata” and Clair de Lune and a bunch of show-offy Chopin numbers. Liebestraum is plenty show-offy as well—needlessly so, I’ve come to believe. Is it really necessary for the melody to switch back and forth between the left and right hand, or to have several places where you cross your left hand over your right hand, or to start in A flat major which has four flats to deal with only to change to B major which has five sharps? What, too good for plain old C major, Franz? And given that my wee little paws can barely reach an octave, were all those insane hand-stretching rapid-succession chords absolutely essential? “Liebestraum” means “dreams of love,” but right now it’s a nightmare of frustration.
I’m not a complete novice to this stuff; I did take piano lessons for over a decade—but that was over three decades ago. I only started up again when we discovered that a very old piano came with our very old farmhouse. I probably should have worked my way more gradually to the Carnegie Hall repertoire, but no, I decided I wasn’t going to go back to all that lame kiddie stuff from my youth. I was going to play things I liked, things that would be challenging, yes, but also fun in the challenge. The first three composers I decided to tackle were Scott Joplin, Vince Guaraldi, and Liszt. Guaraldi—yes, he of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” fame—proved so unbelievably difficult I gave up after the opening chords of “Linus and Lucy.” That’s pretty much all you have to know anyway; once you start that sequence, your listeners will instantly start doing those goofy dance moves. Turn head left, turn head right; swing arms left, swing arms right; sleepwalk.
I got a little further with Joplin, and his “Maple Leaf Rag” is befitting of a piano built in 1904. But reading through the music and figuring out what notes were the right ones was still an agonizing process. I never studied music theory, so while I can tell when I’m playing something wrong (KLONNNGGG!), it takes a lot of effort to figure out what’s supposed to be right. Even when I do figure it out, sometimes the chords are so weird and complex I’m not sure it really is right. “Scott, what the hell is happening here?” I’ll plead aloud. I don’t get an answer, of course, so I’ll listen to a professional pianist’s recorded version and wonder why I didn’t just start with “On Top of Old Smokey.”
The Liszt evokes similar reactions from me (“Are you kidding me, Franz? What is that, like, an octave and a half? Am I supposed to hit the high note with my elbow?”), which is kind of funny because other than both being composers of piano music I play very badly, Joplin and Liszt couldn’t be more different. Liszt was Hungarian, born into a prominent musical family; he was well-regarded throughout his life and made so much money as a musician that after a while he simply gave it away—all of it—to charity. Joplin was African-American, also born to a musical family, but one of railroad workers rather than aristocrats; his early work was enormously popular, “Maple Leaf Rag” in particular, but when he created a European-style opera whose subject was the education of former slaves—well, that was crossing a line, apparently, and critics savaged his work. Liszt died at age 74 and was mourned by many of the great musicians of the time; Joplin was 49 when he died of syphilis in a state mental institution. Their music sounds nothing alike either; Liszt was of the Romantic Era and Liebestraum does indeed sound dreamy, while Joplin’s ragtime is all syncopation and swing. Yet they do have something in common besides the composition of painfully difficult music.
From the preface to Liebestraum, I learned that Liszt’s composition had started as music for a German poem, “O love, as long as you can.” The poem warns the listener that one day your loved one will be dead and you’ll regret all the words you said in anger and wish you could take back but no, no, it will be too late. Not exactly lyrics to put on your dancing shoes, but resonant nonetheless. I wanted to learn this piece, after all, because I thought it might be nice to play it for my father, who is 90 years old and, well, let’s just say I hope I learn it before it’s too late. There’s an urgency to this task that doesn’t make it easier to accomplish, but maybe that’s necessary too. There is urgency and immediacy in this music, in Joplin’s music, maybe music in general. Music is not merely a confusing jumble of notations on a page; music exists in the moment it is played. That could be one reason we find it so compelling. It’s a heartbeat, a longing, a dance. Like life itself, it’s something we should enjoy as long as we can.