Catherine Tice: A Brief History of Musical Failure


Tice recounts her reach towards musical prodigy @ Granta. "One August morning, at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, I sat in on a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy – a piece I didn’t know well at the time, which is traditionally performed to close Marlboro’s summer season. It was gray and humid and some friends and I trekked up a grassy hill slick with rain to the great barn of an auditorium, where we were treated to Richard Goode on the piano, a group of young singers, and the Choral Fantasy itself, which Beethoven conceived as something of an experiment: a layering of musical forms. The piece begins with the rising chords of a solo piano, which are joined by the strings after the first theme is introduced, followed by the winds, and then a chorus and the rest of the orchestra. The Choral Fantasy is the kernel of the Ninth Symphony, an abbreviated pastiche of that much longer work, keyed in C Minor, which in 1808 was thought to be ‘emotionally stormy’. The performers rehearsed the piece twice and, through all of it, I wept.

Why? My friends wanted to know. I was puzzled myself. It had something to do with my relationship to music, to the violin, which I studied seriously for fourteen years, and, to my parents, my teachers and the friends with whom I played chamber music – simply an acute sense of loss for the music that had been the focus of my childhood. Music was central to my parents’ marriage. They met, as students, at some sort of musical event. Or was it that one happened upon the other playing the organ after midnight in the university chapel? They both sang in various groups on campus.

Both played the piano; my father played the cello as well. A year or so after graduating from college, my mother received a Fulbright scholarship and went to Paris to study musicology at the Sorbonne. Six months later, well before the end of her stint, my father proposed marriage, but with an expiring option tied to an acceptance deadline. In 1958, and at twenty-five, my mother thought she had better accept. She was too ‘old’ to be unmarried, and, besides, Paris was overwhelming, her first cosmopolis. More importantly, she believed she was a woman madly in love. She abandoned the fellowship and moved to Chapel Hill to marry my father."