I would’ve made you leave your key

On Sunday, as you might have read, pianist Krystian Zimerman announced from the stage of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles that he would no longer perform in the United States, as a protest against American foreign policy.

Before playing the final work on his recital, Karol Szymanowski’s “Variations on a Polish Folk Theme,” Zimerman sat silently at the piano for a moment, almost began to play, but then turned to the audience. In a quiet but angry voice that did not project well, he indicated that he could no longer play in a country whose military wants to control the whole world.

On the surface, it was a rather startling breach of concert decorum, although I think that’s mostly a tribute to how good casual classical music lovers are at willfully ignoring the complicated overtones of an art form that, more often than not, is more politically charged than almost any other. And Zimerman has always been—well, maybe eccentric isn’t the right word in this post-Gouldian age—but certainly an artist who has doggedly followed his own path. And I’ll give him this: he picked a pretty good break-up song.

Most break-up songs in the classical repertoire tend to be of the fairly wistful, regretful variety. But there’s another kind of break-up song that I’ve always liked better, one more prevalent in pop music, that, for want of a less profane term, I think of as “cheerful f***-you” songs. (Sometimes literally, like in Green Day’s “F.O.D.”) They tend to be bright, agreeably driving, with no small amount of bravado—reveling in that liberating, you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit sort of energy. In operatic terms, it’s a song for Marcello and Musetta, not Rodolfo and Mimì.

I’ve been racking my brains trying to come up with a really early example of this type of song—either from, say, Baroque opera (there has to be one in there somewhere) or Tin Pan Alley—but my brain is pretty fried today. Most modern entries, I think, can trace their lineage to either the stripped-down engine of Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack” or the laconic indictment of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” (Cover versions often blur the categories—on his big-band album Soul on Top, James Brown turned “Your Cheatin’ Heart” into, basically, a Ray Charles break-up song.) For a time, the easygoing style reigned—Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” or one of the genre’s touchstones, Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright),” the sharpness of the knife the song’s laid-back equanimity—but in the post-punk era, the shinier, happier catharsis has prevailed. For some musicians, it’s at the core of their output—the aforementioned Green Day is a good example. A couple days ago, I had occasion to play a fine recent entry in the category, Miller and Tysen‘s very funny “Spring Cleaning,” which has this tempo indication:

in a Ben Folds-ish bangy rocky showtune way

Indeed, Folds’ “Song for the Dumped” makes explicit what seems to be percolating just beneath the surface of a lot of his other songs. In recent years, the category seems to have been increasingly usurped by screechy girl-power anthems—think Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” without the sassy sarcasm or the pipes—though I am completely aware that my own apathy to this latest evolutionary turn can be entirely attributed to the fact that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a teenaged girl.

I think part of the reason that classical repertoire has so little of this kind of thing is that those pieces that use such energy tend to be perceived as commenting on much bigger, march-of-history topics than the domestic snark of a break-up. The Toccata finale to Prokofiev’s 7th Piano Sonata, for example, would make a great break-up song, except that the timing and historical wherewithal of its composition would make that either wildly inappropriate or delusionally self-aggrandizing. Beethoven finales also tend towards the mood, but tradition is that such outbursts have been interpreted optimistically—still, I could imagine that, with different lyrics, the “Ode to Joy” could be a pretty good break-up song.

Szymanowski’s “Variations” don’t completely fit, either, but, under the circumstances, it’s notable how the end of the piece suddenly turns towards what, in pop music, is fertile defiant break-up territory. The Polish theme Szymanowski uses is a brooding, b-minor Andantino, and the variations maintain that dark cast, albeit sometimes with great force:

When Szymanowski shifts into the parallel major, the mood is Chopin-esque and bittersweet:

But the final variation, for the first time in the piece, marries virtuosic power with major-key brightness:

Then, a bit of fugue (marked “Mit Humor”):

… before a high-octane finish:

In a normal context, this is standard virtuoso stuff—flair and inventiveness. But, in light of Zimerman’s pronouncement, the music shows no small number of “cheerful f***-you” attributes: blazing triumph, hurtling energy, poker-faced humor, show-off defiance. If Zimerman really does mean to hit the road, and wanted to make sure we missed him when he was gone, then, from a pop standpoint, he programmed one of the better goodbyes—or, if that’s too good a bye, one of the better fare-thee-wells—in the classical playbook.


  1. Walton said his First Symphony “was about girls.” Peter Pirie, in his invaluable book “The English Musical Renaissance” commented something to the effect that it must’ve been a pretty stormy affair he went through.

  2. Zimerman’s god. Recently heard him play the Lutoslawski piano concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, which was written for him when he was a wee young thing. And the issues he’s protesting are real. Poland, as we’ve been reading lately with its secret CIA prisons and NATO missile sites, has been bending over backwards for the worst missions of the United States in recent years, and he has every reason to be furious.

    Love the genre of “defiant-fuck-you-I’m-over-you” music. Easily the best version I’ve ever heard was the old disco queen Sylvester in the 1970s singing “Someone Belongs to Everyone but No One Belongs to Me” with the first ten minutes devoted to his/her sadness over that state of affairs and the final ten minutes quite defiantly expressing the opposite.

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