Law and Conversation

April 26, 2011

Get your Beethoven on

Filed under: Music,piano — Helen Gunnarsson @ 6:00 pm
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My amazing piano teacher, Abraham Stokman, will play a benefit concert for the victims of the Japan earthquake and tsunami on Wednesday, April 27, at 7 PM at Nichols Recital Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, IL. Beethoven junkies, this one’s for you: Abe will play not one, not two, not three, not four, but FIVE (count ’em!) Beethoven sonatas:  Op. 28, Op. 90, Op. 101, Op. 27, No. 2, and Op. 111. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 seniors, $7 students at the door. All proceeds go to the Japanese Red Cross.

You can watch a fourteen-minute video of Abe playing part of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations on YouTube.

September 15, 2010

The Schumanns and the law

Filed under: biography,composers,Law,mental health,Music,piano — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:39 am
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Monday’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor reminds us that Clara Wieck Schumann was born on that day, September 13, 1819.  Clara vied with Franz Liszt for the title of preeminent concert pianist of the 19th century, though her role as wife of composer Robert Schumann and mother of their eight children required her to cut back on performing for a time as well as to leave off composing.

Legal issues permeated the Schumanns’ lives.  To marry, they had to file a lawsuit, for Clara’s controlling and grasping father/teacher/agent/producer opposed their relationship.  After their marriage, Clara writes in her diary and correspondence of further legal disputes with her father over her earnings and property.  And Clara eventually had to commit Robert to an institution because of his insanity, the result of his syphilis.

The Schumanns’ lives show that truth is far stranger and more complex than fiction!  For more, you can read “The Marriage Diaries of Robert and Clara Schumann” as well as your choice of several juicy biographies.

Who are your favorite musicians?  For enthralling reading, what biographies do you recommend?

August 27, 2010

Thieves, plunderers, and musicians

The Chicago Tribune reports on a happy ending, with the aid of the newspaper’s Problem Solver column, for a violist whose prized instrument was stolen more than ten years ago.  As columnist Jon Yates wrote, Northwestern University law professor Robert Bennett recited blackletter law that a thief cannot convey good title to stolen property.

The old saw, “Possession is nine tenths of ownership,” can trump the law when it comes to repatriation of property stolen decades or centuries ago, as Colin Woodard shows in his article, “The War Over Plunder: Who Owns Art Stolen in War?” from The Quarterly Journal of Military History.  Many treasures are simply of unknown provenance, including many artifacts held by museums:  their origins and creators may be undisputed, but what happened after their creation and the paths they took to get to the museums where they now reside are often murky, if not impossible to ascertain.  One famous example of museum property whose rightful ownership is bitterly disputed is the Elgin Marbles, in the possession of the British Museum since the early 19th century.  You can read more about that controversy here, here, and here.

The stolen viola’s rightful owner spoke movingly in Yates’s article about what her instrument meant to her.  Two other books that illustrate why, to a musician, just any instrument won’t do are Vikram Seth’s “An Equal Music” and Perri Knize’s “Grand Obsession.”

March 26, 2010

Fun is the best reason to learn something!

I played piano for years as a kid and got to be reasonably proficient.  Though I loved playing, I stopped taking lessons on high school graduation and assumed I’d never take lessons again.  Since I wasn’t going to be a professional musician, there was no point to taking lessons after that, was there?

 What wrongheaded notions we can seize on and maintain for years and years, and how lucky we are if we run into someone or something who jolts us into questioning them and, perhaps, realizing that they make no sense.

 I am lucky to have had all kinds of jolts on different ideas, including taking piano lessons as an adult.  28 years after high school graduation, I realized that wanting to take piano lessons as an amateur adult was the best reason in the world for doing so.  So, I enrolled in a local music school and was assigned to the best teacher I’ve ever had.  He’s worked with me on unlearning some bad habits and learning new good habits and pushed me to get a really good piano of my own, not to mention to find time to practice, which is always a challenge for me.  After nearly four years of studying with him, in my assessment (and in my mother’s, who was not only my first piano teacher but, for many years, my only one), I’m playing better now than I ever did as a teenager, though back then I was practicing far more. 

 I know several other adults who are also taking lessons on musical instruments.  Some had the courage to start learning a completely new instrument in midlife, just because they’d always wanted to, and even though they all hold down demanding day jobs that often require long hours.  I know others, including several lawyers, who play professional gigs after long days in the office or in court.  Making music is great brain exercise, not to mention FUN, especially when you get to play with others.

 Here are five fun books to read about the piano, the first three of which are memoirs by writers who decided to take up or resume piano lessons as adults:

 1)      “Piano Lessons:  Music, Love and True Adventures,” by Noah Adams.  Yes, the same Noah Adams who reports and anchors for NPR.  At the age of 51, he decided to take piano lessons because he’d always wanted to do it.  The book is his memoir of one year of lessons.  (Listen to Charlie Rose interview Adams at 

 2)      “The Piano Shop on the Left Bank,” by Thad Carhart, an American writer who lives in Paris, about how his investigation of an initially mysterious piano shop near his home led to his purchase of a piano and resumption of lessons as well as to learning about pianos, their history, and their technicians. Read interviews with Carhart here and here and check out his website at

 3)      “Grand Obsession,” by Perri Knize, a memoir of the writer’s search for the piano of her dreams and, once she finds it (and dubs her “Marlene” for her marvelous tuning), her quest to get the tuning back so she can fall in love again.  Listen to Knize play Marlene at

 4)      “Piano Girl,” by Robin Goldsby, a delightful memoir of how she became a cocktail pianist.  Originally from Pittsburgh, Goldsby now lives in Germany with her family and appears to have a wonderful life and career.  Check her website out at

 5)      “Men, Women, and Pianos,” by Arthur Loesser, a fascinating book about the history of pianos and the people associated with them.

 If you’ve ever thought of resuming music lessons or singing or playing in a group, or of learning to do something that’s always intrigued you, remember that the best reason is just because you want to, and the best time to start is NOW.  If you have any interest in pianos, pay a visit.  Its message boards are troves of information, especially if you’re considering purchasing a piano.  And if you’ve been holding onto some assumptions since you were small, consider whether they make sense and whether they’re helpful to you:  if you challenge them, or seek out people or situations that might challenge them, you might discover that they don’t make sense and you’re happier and better off discarding them.

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