Friday, February 12, 2010

Define: Virtuoso

The ultimate expression of virtuosity isn't velocity, it's nuance. - Wynton Marsalis

One of my MMM readers/email pals asked me this question, and I thought I knew the answer, but I really couldn't summarize it, so I decided to dedicate a post to it. Let's start with the New Oxford American Distionary that lives in Mac OS X and see where that leads us:

vir-tu-o-so |ˌvər ch oōˈōsō|
noun ( pl. -si |-sē| or -sos )
a person highly skilled in music or another artistic pursuit : a celebrated clarinet virtuoso | [as adj. ] virtuoso guitar playing.
• a person with a special knowledge of or interest in works of art or curios.

vir-tu-o-sic |-ˈäsik; -ˈōsik| |ˈvərtʃəˈwɑsɪk| |-ˈɒsɪk| adjective
vir-tu-o-sity |-ˈäsitē| |ˈvərtʃəˈwɑsədi| |-ˈɒsɪti| noun

ORIGIN early 17th cent.: from Italian, literally ‘learned, skillful,’ from late Latin virtuosus (see virtuous ).

Okay, lets see virtuous:

vir-tu-ous |ˈvər ch əwəs|
having or showing high moral standards : she considered herself very virtuous because she neither drank nor smoked. See note at moral .
• archaic (esp. of a woman) chaste.

vir-tu-ous-ly |ˈvərtʃəwəsli| adverb
vir-tu-ous-ness |ˈvərtʃəwəsnəs| noun

ORIGIN Middle English : from Old French vertuous, from late Latin virtuosus, from virtus ‘virtue.’

The note at moral reads:

"You can be an ethical person without necessarily being a moral one, since ethical implies conformity with a code of fair and honest behavior, particularly in business or in a profession (: an ethical legislator who didn't believe in cutting deals), while moral refers to generally accepted standards of goodness and rightness in character and conduct—especially sexual conduct (: the moral values she'd learned from her mother).

In the same way, you can be honorable without necessarily being virtuous, since honorable suggests dealing with others in a decent and ethical manner, while virtuous implies the possession of moral excellence in character (: many honorable businesspeople fail to live a virtuous private life).

Righteous is similar in meaning to virtuous but also implies freedom from guilt or blame (: righteous anger); when the righteous person is also somewhat intolerant and narrow-minded, self-righteous might be a better adjective.

Someone who makes a hypocritical show of being righteous is often described as sanctimonious —in other words, acting like a saint without having a saintly character."

(All of the bold and italic elements above are from the originals).

See what a thicket I walked into here? Then again, the popular notion of virtuoso makes me think insantly of people like this.

Nicolo Paganini

"Nicolo Paganini was born in Genoa, Italy, Oct 27, 1782. He was one of six children born to Teresa and Antonio Paganini. He was an Italian violinist and a composer, considered by many as the greatest of all time.

He received music lessons from his father before he was 6 years old and later from the best instructors in Genoa. He began to perform in public and composed his first sonata in 1790. In 1795 he went to Parma, Italy to study but the teachers there told him they could do nothing more for him. He then commenced on a course of self-training so rigorous that he often played 15 hours a day. In 1797 he started his concert tours, which for many years consisted of triumph after triumph. From 1805 to 1808 he was the court solo violinist at Lucca, appointed by Napoleon’s sister Elisa Bacciocchi. In 1809 Nicolo became a free-lance soloist performing his own music. He performed concerts throughout Italy.

In early 1828 Nicolo began a six and half year tour that started in Vienna and ended in Paris in September 1834. During the two and half year period from August 1828 to February, 1831 he visited some 40 cities in Germany, Bohemia, and Poland. Performances in Vienna, Paris, and London were hailed widely, and his tour in 1832 through England and Scotland made him wealthy.

His playing of tender passages was so beautiful that his audiences often burst into tears, and yet, he could perform with such force and velocity that at Vienna one listener became half crazed and declared that for some days that he had seen the Devil helping the violinist.

Once his fame was established, Paganini’s life was a mixture of triumphs and personal excesses. He earned large sums of money but he indulged recklessly in gambling and other forms of dissipation. On one occasion he was forced to pawn his violin. Having requested the loan of a violin from a wealthy French merchant so that he could fulfill an engagement, he was given a Guarnerius violin by the merchant and later refused to take it back when the concert was over. It was Paganini’s treasure and was bequeathed to the people of Genoa by the violinist and is still carefully preserved in that city.

Paganini’s genius as a player overshadows his work as a composer. He wrote much of his music for his own performances, music so difficult that it was commonly thought that he entered into a pack
[sic - Huc] with the Devil. His compositions included 24 caprices (published in 1820) for unaccompanied violin that are among the most difficult works ever written for the instrument. He also challenged musicians with such compositions as his 12 sonatas for violin and guitar; 6 violin concerti; and 6 quartets for violin, viola, cello, and guitar."

Many people aren't even aware that Paganini played the guitar, but there were some of his contemporaries who though he was even a better guitarist than a violinist! I have his complete guitar works on CD, and they are quite nice, but I can't say they've influenced me much, but Paganini was notorious for only writing out simple accompaniment parts, and then making them tours de force when he performed them, so who knows how he actually played them.

Franz Liszt

"Born on October 22, 1811 in Raiding (then Doborján) Hungary Franz Liszt was soon recognized to be a child prodigy at the age of six. His father Adam, who played the cello in the local orchestra, taught Franz piano. Employed as a secretary by Prince Nicholas Esterházy Adam asked for extended leave to further his son's musical education.

Adding further to Adam's plea was a letter of request in 1822 by Antonio Salieri, Mozart's old rival, who was astonished upon hearing the young Liszt play at a private house. This prompted Salier's offer to freely train the child in composition. The Prince finally gave the Liszt's leave to stay in Vienna. Liszt at this time also studied piano under Carl Czerny - Beethoven's esteemed pupil. This lasted only eighteen months.

Tours and many performances generated amazement and praise for the young Liszt by audiences, musicians and Kings. They were especially impressed by his uncanny ability to improvise an original composition from a melody suggested by the audience. Playing on par with established professionals at age 12 Liszt was fast becoming a sensation."

I became aware of Franz Liszt when I was in high school through the 1975 film, Lisztomania starring Roger Daltrey of The Who. The only reason I went was because The Who was my favorite band at the time, but I was fascinated by the legend of the man, so I bought some Andre Watts recordings of the Liszt Paganini Etudes and proceeded to, well, freak the frak out.

Here's Mr. Watts playing Liszt's Transcendental Etude No. 10 (Embedding disabled).


I'm sure I'm far from alone in thinking of these two guys first when I hear the word virtuoso, but there's obviously more to it than just amazing performance abilities (Though, note that both Paganini and Liszt were also composers). For me the word virtuoso can also apply to composers like these guys.

Johann Sebastian Bach

This is the bit I want to focus on:

"Bach's abilities as an organist were highly respected throughout Europe during his lifetime, although he was not widely recognised as a great composer until a revival of interest and performances of his music in the first half of the 19th century. He is now regarded as the supreme composer of the Baroque, and as one of the greatest of all time."

I've known this fact for decades, but it never ceases to amaze and inspire me: Bach was primarily known as a keyboard virtuoso in his lifetime, and not as a virtuoso compser, which was obviously his great contribution to music. This inspires me because I'm not in any way surprised when nobody comprehends any of my "stuff." I realize that I can talk all day about how rigorous mechanical efficiency, convertible contrapuntal combinations, and axial fugue subject manipulations are new in my music - and be genuinely enthusiastic about it - and nobody is going to get it, or even care: If they didn't get Bach... well.

Bach is also the composer I relate to the best in terms of his music. When Jackie King first explained the concept of fugue to me and had me listen to Bach's A minor fugue for lute...

... the first words out of my mouth when it was finished were, "It's so logical."

This guy, OTOH, seems like an impenetrable fortress to me...

Ludwig van Beethoven

"Late Works

Beethoven began a renewed study of older music, including works by J. S. Bach and Handel, that were then being published in the first attempts at complete editions. He composed the Consecration of the House Overture, which was the first work to attempt to incorporate his new influences. But it is when he returned to the keyboard to compose his first new piano sonatas in almost a decade, that a new style, now called his "late period", emerged. The works of the late period are commonly held to include the last five piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, the last two sonatas for cello and piano, the late quartets (see below), and two works for very large forces: the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony."

...especially those late works. The forms sound slippery, but when I look at them, they are very much, "in the box." Then - especially with the late string quartets - the music on the page looks disarmingly simple in many places, what with simple scalar passages ascending and descending against each other, but the musical effect when I listen to them is devastating. I may never figure this guy out, but he's my favorite composer by far, and IMO the greatest ever.

I may have to learn that at some point. lol.


But, this is all classical stuff so far. Since I'm from, "the wrong side of the tracks" musically - being a former jazz and rock guitarist who even appeared on MTV a couple of times - I also think musicians other than classical guys can be virtuosos too.

Charlie Parker

"The only child of Charles and Addie Parker, Charlie Parker was one of the most important and influential saxophonists and jazz players of the 1940’s.

When Parker was still a child, his family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where jazz, blues and gospel music were flourishing. His first contact with music came from school, where he played baritone horn with the school’s band. When he was 15, he showed a great interest in music and a love for the alto saxophone. Soon, Parker was playing with local bands until 1935, when he left school to pursue a music career.

From 1935 to 1939, Parker worked in Kansas City with several local jazz and blues bands from which he developed his art. In 1939, Parker visited New York for the first time, and he stayed for nearly a year working as a professional musician and often participating in jam sessions. The New York atmosphere greatly influenced Parker's musical style. "

Before J.S. Bach I discovered Charlie Parker... Okay, I was turned onto him, also by my seminal teacher, Jackie King. In fact, I often call Charlie Parker, "The J.S. Bach of Jazz" because his music, while in a completely different genera, hits me with the same inevitability and logic that Bach's music does. Just as J.S. influenced me massively vis-a-vis counterpoint and fugue, Parker influenced me massively vis-a-vis melody. So much so, that I combined Bach's counterpoint with Parker's melody in another piece nobody seems to grasp the novelty and sublimity of.

In a nutshell then, I don't think musical genera excludes anybody from being considered a virtuoso.

Miles Davis

"Miles Davis was one of the greatest visionaries and most important figures in jazz history. He was born in a well-to-do family in East St. Louis. He became a local phenom and toured locally with Billy Eckstine's band while he was in high school. He moved to New York under the guise of attending the Julliard School of Music. However, his real intentions were to hook up with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He quickly climbed up the ranks while learning from Bird and Diz and became the trumpet player for Charlie Parker's group for nearly 3 years. His first attempt at leading a group came in 1949 and was the first of many occurrences in which he would take jazz in a new direction. Along with arranger Gil Evans, he created a nonet (9 members) that used non-traditional instruments in a jazz setting, such as French horn and Tuba. He invented a more subtle, yet still challenging style that became known as "cool jazz." This style influenced a large group of musicians who played primarily on the west coast and further explored this style. The recordings of the nonet were packaged by Capitol records and released under the name The Birth of the Cool. The group featured Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, and Max Roach, among others. This was one of the first instances in which Miles demonstrated a recurring move that angered some: he brought in musicians regardless of race. He once said he'd give a guy with green skin and "polka-dotted breath" a job, as long as they could play sax as well as Lee Konitz."

I consider myself ridiculously fortunate to have met Miles and also to have listened to him play in a completely private setting. My band was rehearsing at SIR in Manhattan and Miles was rehearsing next door. There are two doors going into studio one there to deaden the sound, and I was so intimidated by him - this is after my degree at Berklee - that I sandwiched myself between the doors to listen. Well, one of the sound guys need to take a break and opened the inner door to discover me there... and promptly doubled over laughing. He said, "come on in, man!" - an offer I'd never refuse - and so I got to watch Miles play to an audience of about five for over an half hour (Yes, "an" goes before a word beginning with an "h"... but I digress). Nobody will ever be able to tell me this man wasn't a virtuoso, despite the intuitive nature of his learning and playing.


So we have classical and jazz music covered in the definition of virtuoso, but how about my very first guitar hero?

Jimi Hendrix

"Widely recognized as one of the most creative and influential musicians of the 20th century, Jimi Hendrix pioneered the explosive possibilities of the electric guitar. Hendrix's innovative style of combining fuzz, feedback and controlled distortion created a new musical form. Because he was unable to read or write music, it is nothing short of remarkable that Jimi Hendrix's meteoric rise in the music took place in just four short years. His musical language continues to influence a host of modern musicians, from George Clinton to Miles Davis, and Steve Vai to Jonny Lang."

When Jimi hit I was a pre-teen living in Tacoma, Washington and he was from Seattle - hometown hero - and needless to say, he wiped everybody off the map. A virtuoso? Oh yeah.

Steve Vai

"Vai first stepped into the spotlight in 1980 as a guitarist in Frank Zappa's band. But Vai's indelible contribution to music came during his solo career, which includes combined sales of nearly six million albums. His debut - "Flex-Able" (1984, self-released) – set the stage for Vai's most influential and best-selling album – "Passion and Warfare" (1990, Relativity). The album expanded the lexicon of rock guitar and ushered in an era of guitar virtuosos in the early '90s. Ironically, two record labels dropped Vai while he recorded the breakthrough album."

Steve and I are the same age, and he left Berklee to work with Zappa the semester before I got there. He was already a legend among guitarists, and he's my favorite guitarist among contemporary rock stylists by far: a true virtuoso. I thank God he's never done a nylon guitar solo piece because then I'd have to, you know, learn it as one of my crowd pleaser deals, which might lead to wrist slitting and all sorts of death. LOL!

Needless to say, I could go on, but I think readers ought to get the point: There is a difference between possessing virtuosity - i.e. the ability to play fast - and being a virtuoso which implies a transcendental level of mastery. There is also the dimension of being a virtuoso in a particular style or at a particular task - I consider myself a virtuoso at programming the Lexicon MPX-G2 Guitar Effects Processor, for example - versus living a virtuous life: Many virtuoso musicians live lives that are a wreck or even abjectly tragic.

What would you get if you combined a virtuoso musician with a virtuous life? Who would be my pick for the complete virtuoso, IOW? This guy right here.

Andres Segovia

"Andrés Segovia (1893-1987) is considered to be the father of the modern classical guitar movement by most modern scholars. Many feel, that without his efforts, the classical guitar would still be considered a lowly bar instrument, played only by peasants.

Segovia's quest to elevate the guitar to a prominent position in the music world, began at the early age of four. His uncle used to sing songs to him and pretend to strum an imaginary guitar in his lap. Luckily for us, there was a luthier nearby and Segovia took an instant liking to the guitar. Although discouraged by his family (according to them he should play a "real" instrument), he continued to pursue his studies of the guitar. He set a goal for the guitar and himself early in life. It was, to bring Guitar studies to every university in the world, have the guitar played throughout the world, on every major stage, just as the piano and violin were, and lastly, to pass on his love of the guitar to generations to follow. He considered himself to be the messenger that would complete this impossible quest.

He succeeded in all respects."

Yes he did. If you are a guitarist in any style of music this man is your father. He's the father of us all. And, he lead an long, exemplary, and honorable life.


Blogger A Wolf said...

Very nice. I think these judgments are very complex, though I agree with all your choices. I tend to stick to the much easier to define and judge "underrated" and "overrated" labels.

Anyway, this collage of talent and history here is annoyingly humbling...

6:49 PM  
Blogger John Salmon said...

I love Miles-as a (hack) jazz trumpeter, he's one of my all-time heroes-but I can't see that he had anything close to virtuoso level chops. A jazz trumpet guy who did have that kind of technique was Maynard Ferguson, who essentially re-invented his instrument, and could play the hell out of most other brass instruments as well.

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! Worth the wait!

6:06 AM  

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