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On Kyle Gann’s excellent blog PostClassic a couple of weeks ago he related that a biography he saw of John Field hammered together two adjoining paragraphs this way:

“…He died in Moscow January 11, 1837.

Field’s execution was distinguished for taste and extreme delicacy…”

He made a wry comment on the proximity of “died” to “execution,” and with that comment ran headlong into the danger all writers face (and he’s a good one) when attempting wryness. Some folks just do not get wry. Wry alone is a bread on which they, to a man, do not live. Their resistance to wry remains unceded.

Thus, a commenter or two unnecessarily lectured Mr. Gann that there are different meanings for  the word “execution,” and then I just couldn’t take it anymore. He needs no help from me, goodness gracious, but something mischievous occurred to me and I quickly posted before I could think better of it. My comment is below; read the entire exchange here.

I have no idea why I lit on D’Albert as my example, but I remembered his wives, google-mapped Riga to get my bearings, and was off and running. I see lots of places for editing now, and I thought I hit on a great joke with “forensic musicology” until it started sounding vaguely familiar and then I realized that it’s an actual (but different) discipline but really, I really must, really, stop.

Dear Professor Gann,

I must come to your defense against your critics. You are obviously aware, as they are not, that it was quite common for 19th-century pianist-composers to be executed. It is far and away the leading explanation of why so few manuscript full scores exist of 19th-century piano concertos. The executions traditionally took place in Russia because of favorable union rules and up-to-date mechanisms that fostered taste and delicacy, as you note. But there are exceptions.



Eugene D’Albert proves the rule, you remember, on two counts. He died from choking while dining, after his sixth wife slapped him when he made an inappropriate remark concerning Teresa Carreño. Witnesses disagree on whether the cause of the outrage was the joke itself or because he kept referring to Ms. Carreño as “my wife” when she was, of course, wife #2. Leaving the magnitude of such an error to be judged by those most closely concerned, the real irony, of course, is that the dinner took place in Latvia where he was awaiting execution. It was, in fact, his last meal before the dawn ceremony.

But here’s the thing: he was actually on his way to Moscow for his scheduled demise (he was on a concert tour of his native Scotland when the papers came through notifying him that his execution had been approved), but when they arrived in Riga via Oslo and Stockholm, they found that the trains to Moscow had been overbooked that week with other to-be-executed-pianist-composers, spouses, ex-spouses, and other mourner/celebrants. So the authorities approached the Latvian government, which proved remarkably accommodating, seeing as how no objections could be found, especially in view of public and foreign relations. So it was decided that one outsourcing exception wouldn’t hurt. In a manner of speaking.

You know, of course, that forensic musicologists differ on whether this is an exception after all, since this occurred in 1932, stretching the scope of “19th-century.” But it is still ironic, since that dinner was going to be his last meal no matter what happened—regardless of his sense of humor, or his wife’s lack, or the lack of same by your critics.

Yr most humble, etc.,
Kile Smith

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