Confused Comparisons

Scripps-Howard News Service 5.29.02
Balint Vazsonyi

Last Friday, The New York Times carried an extensive review of the new film "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing." The reviewer, A. O. Scott, applies a rather all-embracing, cosmic perspective to what he himself describes as a variation on any number of previous films with very ordinary stories. Is then the headline, "Tangled Up in the Laws of the Universe, if There Are Any," somewhat over the top perchance?

Be that as it may, my attention was drawn to the following: "[The director's] conception of form is, ultimately, musical. Watching 'Thirteen Conversations'...is a bit like listening to a Schubert piano concerto; you perceive, at the far boundary of consciousness, echoes and foreshadowings, and you encounter, always by surprise and always in retrospect, at exactly the right moment passages of intense and ravishing emotions."

Now, I have been playing the piano since the age of five - beginning at twelve, professionally. Never have such thoughts about Schubert's piano concerto(s) occurred to me. This is serious stuff. I mean, how many of us are actually aware of the far boundaries of consciousness? How many of us can perceive echoes and foreshadowings?

And then the surprise of encountering - always in retrospect! - passages of intense and ravishing emotions, not just any old time, but at exactly the right moment?!


You have to wonder how Schubert was able to deliver stuff like that. He was a modest man, short in stature, rather pathetic and lonely. For sure, he was possessed of a heavenly gift about which a teacher of his said when Franz was little - "there's nothing I can teach this lad; he's got it straight from God himself." But Schubert had no reason to think grandiose thoughts. When, toward the end of his life, friends finally put together a concert of his compositions, the Viennese press stayed away.

Still, by the time Schubert died at the age of thirty-one, he had composed much music of exceptional beauty, not in the way of echoes and foreshadowings, but right there upon first encounter.

Is there something different, though, about Schubert's piano concerto(s)?

I looked through all the Schubert literature we have on our bookshelves. No one else seems to have encountered - either by surprise or by retrospect - passages of intense and ravishing emotions in the piano concerto(s).

Does A. O. Scott hear something the rest of us do not?

Or is this a new fashion - comparisons between things that are not the least bit comparable? Schubert was one of probably not more than a dozen-or-so men in history who composed music of that magnitude. The film being reviewed here, according to the reviewer, is one of thirteen similar ones produced just during the last decade.

A piano concerto is a rather specific medium that sets one very powerful instrument against a body of instruments, at times in a competing, at times in a complementary fashion. There is practically no way in which a film could be anything similar to a piano concerto by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms or Bartok.

Would Schubert's piano concerto(s) be so different?

The sad truth is that we are inundated with inappropriate comparisons. When Elton John came on the scene, people compared him to Liszt. Please. When someone appears to know a thing or two about more than his narrow profession, he is called "a renaissance man." Barbara Walters compared Debra Winger to Ingrid Bergman.

And not only in the arts: The other day, President Bush called the Islamic threat to the world "the new totalitarianism," and proposed to Germany's legislative body that the instigators of terrorism are doing the same as "those who killed to purify the race."

With all due respect to the president and his commitment to the war thrust upon him, there is not the slightest resemblance. On one side you have the Third Reich with its outstanding technology, its successful occupation of country after country, its precisely targeted extermination of specific human beings. On the other, we see a large segment of humanity devoid of accomplishment for long centuries, frustrated beyond endurance by a world passing them by, lashing out in a blind rage.

Evil is evil, but comparisons must fit, or they just add to the confusion.

Take Schubert. True, he composed around one thousand works - symphonies, sonatas, string quartets, hundreds of songs. But the expansive reference to his piano concerto(s) in the film review is most confusing.

Because, you see, Schubert didn't write any.