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· Musical Paper Grading: Joseph Haydn to the Rescue ·

I've been marking student papers recently. Always trying work, it's nevertheless pleasant, particularly so if, when fortified with coffee, I can pen comments to the accompaniment of Joseph Haydn's fine piano sonatas. They've long been favorite marking aids — especially as interpreted by Sir Alfred Brendel. Brendel's recordings, 11 Piano Sonatas, I've almost burned through with the intense laser light shed on Haydn in sunrise bouts with student writing. In fact, I'm listening to the man now, and he's again having his salutary effect: calming, regulating, teasing, stimulating, provoking, ironizing — all, of course, what teachers most need to mark, beyond accuracy and correctness, what Robert Frost once called "the part where the adventure begins."*

It was yesterday that I began to understand Haydn's heretofore mysterious effect on me. The revelation came from the book I quoted just last week, Russell Sherman's stylish Piano Pieces. Since there's no rule against repetition — especially with some theme and variation — I've thought to share Sherman's grasp of Haydn's use. Though he approaches his own work from a musical standpoint, I can by analogy, at least, mark mine also from a literary. Both go hand-in-hand.

 · Joseph Haydn · [A]ll teachers are likely to recommend certain favorite composers and pieces deemed useful [Sherman writes] to the growing-up stages of their students. To promote discrimination of ear and execution, some teachers assign Bach; others start with Chopin as the ground of touch and control. For me, the exemplary guide and mind-opener is Haydn.

Haydn instructs in thinking: heart-thinking and brain-thinking. Haydn instructs in faith; Haydn instructs in skepticism. Haydn instructs in resolve and in resignation; in structure and strategy; in caprice and tenderness. Haydn instructs, above all in that which is root, premise, and condition of all else: composition, or how the notes are put together, broken apart, reassembled, and transformed. Everything is up-front, exposed. Life is tragic, life is amusing; things come and go; one is at the center of the storm, and at the periphery.

For the notes are alive. They create and crumble right in front of our bloodied nose.

Since I'm off now to attend a meeting in San Francisco — the annual College Conference on Composition and Communication — today I thought to put Sherman's passage to use as a send-off, including another Sherman passage I find even more appealing.

Haydn provides a pedagogical example in one other respect [Sherman adds], a lesson imperative to contemplate in this day of media glut, of the siren call of cheap fame, and of the triumph of notoriety over talent. In his writings Haydn reflected on the fortunate fact of his relative isolation at the Esterhazy estate, where he served as music man to the prince. For a crucial period of maturity and growth, he was thankful to be distant from Vienna, from the center of fashion and commerce, and thus allowed him to develop his own ideas, personality, and vision. Russell Sherman, Piano Pieces (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 76-77.

This is not to say, of course, that I'm not going to enjoy fashionable San Francisco.

But while I'm gone — all of you, please — do give Joseph Haydn a listen.

*"You have got to mark, and you have got to mark, first of all, for accuracy, for correctness. But if I am going to give a mark, that is the least part of my marking. The hard part is the part beyond that, the part where the adventure begins." Robert Frost, 'Education by Poetry,' Selected Prose of Robert Frost, eds. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Collier Books, 1968), 34.

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A triple play of advice and counsel. Thanks for the inspiration!

Posted by loretta markle on March 28, 2005 09:12 PM


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