Thursday, October 28, 2010

Our Acme Queen Parlor Organ; Sears in 1902

That's right! $27.45 buys the organ. Step right up.

A good friend and regular reader of the Labyrinth suggested to me yesterday that I explore how much an organ cost in 1902. Turns out I have a Sears Catalog from 1902. (Don't ask). Notice the foot pedals that were pedaled in order to produce sound...no electricity needed for this organ.

"THE TONE--The tone is one of the most important qualities in any organ and with our Acme Queen the tone is faultless. The depth and breadth of the sounding chamber is exactly proportioned so as to give beauty to the tone without sacrificing the sweetness. This together with the finely tempered metal used in the reeds, secures a purity of tone which can only be equaled by the soft pipe of the church organ.

"Do you hesitate to send cash with your order? Read what we say about cash terms on page 1."

"$27.45 BUYS THE ORGAN and we are bound to please you or the organ is shipped back to us and you get ALL YOUR MONEY RETURNED.

"FREE...with this organ we present you FREE and ship with it, a fine ORGAN STOOL, and a very complete and valuable INSTRUCTION BOOK."

The front of the catalog has freight shipping rates from Chicago to cities all across America and Canada. Various shipping costs were calculated for weights calculated per hundred pounds.

Who are you going to buy your organ from: Everhart or Sears?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ritter Gluck by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1809)

It was a break-through for a 33-year-old musician, who, after a long and torturous pathway had found yet another muse. He had published a short story about the ghost of Gluck who communicated to a musician through the encoded language of music itself.

It required a musician of epic charisma to wrest musical fiction away from mythology. And it happened cryptically on Wednesday February 15, 1809 when a story called “Ritter Gluck” appeared in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, vol. 11, no. 20, written by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) who signed his name anonymously as “– – – – nn”

During the remaining 13 years of his life, he wrote music, taught the future how to hear Beethoven, initiated the attitudes of literary romanticism, and created a new art of musical fiction. He, and his characters, were an inspiration to Schumann and Brahms. Tchaikovsky’s nutcracker is on a Hoffmann text. Hoffmann appears as the central character in the opera by Offenbach that weaves several of his “Tales.” That it is as a character in Offenbach--instead of one of his own works--that most people know of Hoffmann is a fate worthy of a Hoffmann story in itself.

Here is my translation of Hoffmann's very first published story:


RITTER GLUCK
A Recollection from the Year 1809 by E.T.A. Hoffmann

Late autumn in Berlin normally still has some beautiful days. A friendly sun comes through the clouds and evaporates dampness from the lukewarm air blowing through the streets. You see a colorful long row of people—Elegants, Businessmen with their wives, and little ones in their Sunday best, priests, Jews, law clerks, prostitutes, professors, milliners, dancers, officers in the military—walking through the linden trees toward the Tiergarten. Soon all places are taken at Klaus und Weber’s. The smell of coffee fills the air; elegants light their cigarettes; people talk, one argues over war and peace, one over whether Madame Bethmann’s shoes at her latest stage appearance were grey or green, the closed commercial state, the weak Groschen and so on and on, until everything dissolves into an aria from “Fanchon”—with an untuned harp, a couple uninclined violins, a tubercular flute and an spasmatic bassoon torment themselves and any listeners nearby. Close to the railing which separates the Weberschen District from the Heerstraße there are several small round tables and garden chairs; here one breathes fresh air, can observe people coming and going, and are removed from the cacaphonic din of that accursed orchestra: that is where I sit. I fantasize friendly figures with whom I can discuss science, art—anything that people really should think about. Ever more multicolored, the crowd passes by me. But they do not distract me. It takes the trio section of that trashy waltz to tear me from my dream world. All I can hear is the shrieking upper voice of violin and flute and the nasal bass of the bassoon, locked together firmly in octaves which cut the ear, and as a reflex, like someone which a burning pain seizes, I cry out:

“What shitty music! Those horrible octaves!” when beside me someone murmured; “Just my luck! Another octave-hunter!”

I look up and become aware that, unnoticed by me until now, a stranger has joined me at my table, and stares rigidly at me, and once in eye contact with him, I can’t look away. I never saw a head, never a shape, that made such a deep and immediate impression on me. A gentle curved nose closed to a broad, open forehead. Bushy, half-grey eyebrows under which eyes with almost wild, juvenile fire (the man must have been over fifty) looked out. The softly formed chin stood in strange contrast with the closed mouth, and a scurrilous smile, brought about by a strange play of muscles on the sunken cheeks—in revolt against the melancholy seriousness of the forehead. Only a few grey locks lay behind the large, protruding ears. A bulky, modern overcoat enveloped the gaunt shape. The instant my eyes fastened on the man he lowered his gaze and continued the activity my outcry had interrupted. He was pouring from various small bags, with obvious pleasure, flavored tobaccos into a large box and dampened it with red wine from a quarter-liter bottle. The music had stopped. I felt the need to address the situation.

“It is good that the music is silent,” I said; “it was unbearable.”

The old man threw me a volatile glance and emptied the last little sack.

“It would be better that one did not play at all,” I went on. “Do you share my opinion?”

“I have no opinion,” said he. “You are musicians and connoisseurs of the profession . . .”

“You’re mistaken; I’m neither. At one time I took piano lessons and studied thoroughbass, merely as part of a good education, and among other things they told me that nothing sounds worse than bass and upper voice in octave progressions. I assumed at that time on authority and have subsequently seen it proven afterwards.”

“Really?” He stood up and walked slowly and thoughtfully toward the musicians, gazing upward and tapping himself on the forehead with an open hand, possibly like someone who wants to wake a memory. I saw him speaking with the musicians, who became more orderly. He came back had scarcely taken his seat when they began to play the overture of Iphigenia in Aulis.

With half-closed eyes, arms resting on the table, he heard the andante, quietly moving his left foot. He designated the entrances of parts; now he lifted his head and threw a glance into the space surrounding him, the left hand he placed with fingers spread apart on the table as if he were playing a chord on the piano, the right hand he extending above his head: He was a Kapellmeister, indicating for a change of tempo to an orchestra—the right hand falls and the allegro begins! — A burning redness flies over the pale cheeks; the brows pull together on the taut forehead; an internal rage inflames his wild glances, gradually removing the smile, that still floated around the half-open mouth. Now he leans back; the eyebrows rise; the muscle-play of the cheeks resumes; the eyes flash; a deep, internal pain becomes joy in every fiber and convulsively shakes. Deeply from the chest he draws breath, perspiration dripping from the forehead; he signals the tutti, then each of the principal sections, his right hand never losing the beat, his left drawing out a handkerchief to drive over his face. —In such as way it animated the skeleton, which the small orchestra produced, with substance and color. I heard the gentle, melting laments with which the flute climbs; when the storm of violins and basses is expended and the thunder of the kettle-drums is silent; I heard the quietly fastening tones of cellos, and the bassoons, filling my heart with indescribable nostalgia and longing. The tutti returns, like a tall, noble giant striding forth, unisono, crushing the musty lament with his footsteps.

The overture was ended; the man let both arms fall and sat with closed eyes, weakened from the exertion. His bottle was empty; I filled his glass with Burgundy. He sighed deeply, he seemed to be wakening from a dream. I urged him to drink, which he did at once, swallowing the full glass in a single draught. He exclaimed: “I am content with the performance! The orchestra was good!”

“And nevertheless,” I added, “only weak outlines of a masterpiece scored with vibrant color was given.”

“Do I judge correctly? – You are not from Berlin!”

“Correct; I’m here only now and then.”

“The Burgundy is good, but it is becoming cold outside.”

“Let us go inside and empty the bottle there.”

“A Good suggestion. I do not know you, but you don’t know me, either. Let’s not query names; names are occasionally annoying. I will drink the Burgundy; it is costing me nothing, we seem to get along and let’s leave it at that.” He said all this with good-natured cordialness.

We had stepped into the room; when he sat down, his overcoat fell open and I was astonished to see an embroidered vest and frock-tail coat, black velvet breeches and a tiny silver dagger. He pulled the coat together and carefully buttoned it.

“Why did you ask me if I was a Berliner?”

“Because I would have been forced in that case to leave you.”

“Sounds puzzling.”

“By no means, not when I tell you that I’m a composer.”

“I still do not understand you.”

“Please forgive my outburst a while ago. I see that you know nothing at all about Berlin and the Berliners.”

He rose and went off, pacing sometimes violently, back and forth; then he stepped to the window and sang, barely audibly, the chorus of the Priestesses from Iphigénia in Tauris, tapping on the windowpane now and then to indicate the tutti. I was surprised to note that he made certain modifications in the melodies, giving them new strength and novelty, but I didn’t comment on them. He finished and came back to his chair. I was completely moved by the man’s strange behavior and the fantastic expression of such a rare musical talent. After a while he began:

“Have you never composed?”

“Yes, I’ve tried, but I found everything, at least it seemed to me, written in moments of enthusiasm weak and boring afterward, so I gave it up.”

“You were wrong then; since rejecting your own attempts is no bad sign of talent. You study music as a boy because Papa and Mama wish it. First loosely jingled and played on the violin, but imperceptibly the sense of melody develops. Maybe the half-forgotten theme of some little song that you sang differently from the original, became an embryo, laboriously nurtured by unrelated forces, matures into a giant with newly-charged flesh and blood! Ha, how is it possible where there are thousands of kinds of kinds, to hint at the paths leading to composition! It’s a wide highway where everyone romps along, cheering and shouting: “We are consecrated! We’ve been chosen!” Through an ivory gate one enters the empire of dreams. A few see that gate even once? still fewer pass through it! Everything inside looks adventurous. Great figures float to and fro, each with its own character, distinct from the others. They cannot be seen on the highway, only beyond the ivory gate are they to be found. It is difficult to return from this realm; as before Alzinens castle monsters obstruct the way. —Whirling, spinning — many dream away the dream in this realm of dreams, dissolving into it—never casting a shadow, but they would be aware of the light streaming through this empire. Only a few awaken from the dream, climb and walk through the dreams—they come to the Truth— The ultimate moment: in touch with the eternal, the inexpressible! The sun shines, it is the triad (Dreiklang:threesound) from which celestial harmony shoots forth and enfolds you in a fiery web. Transfigured in the fire, you lie there until Psyche himself swings up to the sun.

With these last words he jumped to his feet, looked up and threw his hand into the air. Then he sat down and quickly emptied the glass I had filled for him. A silence developed which I didn’t want to break for fear of diverting the extraordinary man. Finally, more calm, he continued:

“When I was in the realm of dreams I was tormented by a thousand pains and fears. It was night, and grinning maggots suddenly rushed me, plunging me to the bottom of the sea and then throwing me high into the air. Then beams of light drove through the night, and the beams were musical tones that enveloped me with charming clarity. I awakened from my torment and saw a big, bright eye, gazing into the pipes of an organ, and as it gazed, shimmering tones came forth and embraced one another in splendid chords such as I had never thought of. Melodies streamed forth and I swam in the stream. When I started to sink the big eye looked down at me and held me above the roaring waves. It became night again, and two titans in gleaming armor approached me: the Tonic and the Dominant. They lifted me up as the eye smiled: “I know the longing that fills your soul. Thirds, those soft, gentle youths, will step between the titans. You will hear the sweet voice. I will see you again, and my melodies will be yours.”

He went silent.

“And you saw the eye again?”

“I saw it again! For many years I sighed in the realm of dreams—there—there! I sat in a wonderful valley and listened to how the flowers joined each other in song. Only the sunflower was silent, sorrowfully leaning her folded calyx toward the earth. Invisible threads drew me toward her; she raised her head, the calyx opened and from it the eye cast its beam on me.

Then tones streamed like beams of light from my head to the flowers, which they soaked up. The sunflower leaves grew larger and larger; sending out a warm glow. It flowed around me, surrounded me, the eye had disappeared and I found myself inside the calyx. With these words he sprang up, and with quick, youthful strides rushed out of the room. In vain I waited for his return, and eventually decided to go back into the city.

I was near the Brandenburg Gate when I saw a tall figure coming toward me in the darkness. Immediately recognizing my eccentric, I spoke to him:

“Why did you leave so quickly?”

“It was getting too hot, and the Euphon caught sound.”

“I do not understand you!”

“All the better.”

“All the worse, because I wish to completely understand.”

“Do you hear something?”

“No.”

“. . . It is past! Let us leave it and go. I do not love society evenly—but you do not compose —you are not a citizen of Berlin.”

“I cannot fathom why you’re so against the Berliners. Here, where the arts are respected and exercised to a considerable degree, I would think that a person with your artistic spirit would feel at home!”

“You err! To my agony I am condemned to wander here—restless, like a copied spirit in the desert.”

“The desert? Here—in Berlin?”

“Yes—desert because no kindred spirit is here. I stand alone.”

“But the artists! The composers!”

“Away with them! They cavil and deride; they refine and analyze to the tiniest detail; they root through everything in search of a single miserable thought; they spend so much energy chatting about art and artistic sensibility and who knows what else that they never get around to the work. —And if a couple of thoughts did see the light of day the frightful cold here, the distance from the sun would freeze them. They might just as well be working in Lapland.”

“Your judgment seems much too hard. At least you must enjoy the wonderful performances in the opera theater.”

“I did bring myself to go into the theater once again, to hear my young friend’s opera. What’s it called? — Ha, the whole world is in this opera! The brightly colored performers are pierced by the shades of Hell. Everything finds voice and all powerful sound. The devil—I mean Don Giovanni! But I couldn’t endure it even through the overture. It was played prestissimo, sprayed out like seltzer water, no sense, no understanding— and I had prepared myself through fasting and prayer, because I know that the Euphon is moved much too much by these masses and impure appeal”

“I also have to admit that Mozart’s masterpieces are neglected here, in a way that is hardly explainable, but Gluck’s works certainly enjoy respectable performances.”

“You think so? — Once I wanted to hear Iphigenia in Tauris. As I entered the theater I heard them playing the overture to Iphigenia in Aulis. Hmm, a mistake, I think: they’re playing this Iphigenia! I was surprised hearing that andante played, followed by the storm. Twenty years lie in between! The whole effect, the whole well-calculated exposition of the tragedy was lost. A quiet sea, a storm, then the Greeks are thrown onto shore—that’s the opera! How! Did the composer write in the score that you could blow it off like some little trumpet ditty, as and wherever one wants?”

“A mistake; no doubt. All the same, they do everything possible to promote Gluck’s works.”

“Yes, indeed,” he said dryly, and his smile grew more and more bitter. Suddenly drove off and nothing could stop him. It was as if he vanished in that instant, and for several days afterward I went to the Tiergarten, searching in vain for him.

[* * *]

Several months had passed and I was late on cold, rainy evening in a distant part of the city, and I was hurrying toward my apartment on Friedrichsstraße. I passed the theater; music rushed out—trumpets and drums—reminded me that Gluck’s Armida was being performed. I was in the process of going in when I heard a strange soliloquy—close to the windows where almost every tone of the orchestra could be heard.

“Now the King enters—they’re playing the march. Beat, drums, beat; it’s quite lively! Oh, my! Today they have to do it eleven times, otherwise the procession doesn’t have time enough to proceed! Ha-ha! Maestoso! Move along, boys. Look, there’s someone with a shoe-string hanging loose. Right! — for the twelfth time! And don’t forget to bring out the Dominant. — Oh, you eternal powers—it never ends! Now he’s taking his bow. Armida thanks you most humbly. Again? Right! . . . two soldiers still haven’t come on. Now someone rattles off the recitative. What malevolent spirit binds me to this place?”

“The spell is broken,” I called. “Come with me!”

I seized the arm of my Tiergarten eccentric (for the speaker was none other than he) and rapidly drew him away with me. He seemed surprised but followed me silently. We were in the Friedrichsstraße when he suddenly stood still.

“I know you,” he said. “You were in the Tiergarten; we talked a long time. I drank wine and got overheated. Afterward the Euphon sounded drunk through two days. I endured much . . .it has passed!”

“I’m pleased that coincidence supplied you to me again. Let’s get better acquainted. I don’t live far from here; how would it be if . . .”

“I cannot. I’m not permitted to go to anyone’s lodgings.”

“All right, but you won’t get away from me. I’ll go with you.”

“Then you’ll have to run a few hundred steps with me. But you didn’t want to go into the theater?”

“I wanted to hear Armida, but now—”

“You shall hear Armida now!” Come!.”

Silently we walked up Friedrichsstraße. Rapidly he bent onto a side road, and I could hardly keep up with him, so fast he ran the road, until he finally stood still in front of an unattractive house. A rather long time he knocked before the door finally opened. Groping in the darkness we reached the stairs and then a room in the upper storey, whose door my guide had carefully locked. I heard another door opening and soon thereafter he came in with a lit candelabra, and the strangely furnished room surprised me. Old-fashioned, richly ornate chairs, a clock with gilded housing and a broad, ponderous mirror created an air of gloomy, outmoded splendor. In the center of the room was a small piano on which stood a large porcelain ink-pot and some sheaves of music paper. Looking more closely, I saw that nothing had been composed there for a long time—the paper was yellowed and thick spider webs covered the ink-pot. The man stepped before a cabinet in the corner of the room, which I had not noticed yet, and as he moved the curtain away, I saw a row of beautifully bound books with golden labels: Orfeo, Armida, Alceste, Iphigenia, among others—in short, Gluck’s collected works.

“You own Gluck’s complete works?!” I exclaimed.

He didn’t answer, but his mouth twisted into a convulsive, desperate smile and the play of muscles in his sunken cheeks transformed his face into a frightful mask. His somber stare fixed on me, he seized one of the books—it was Armida—and walked solemnly to the piano. I quickly raised the lid and set up the folded music desk, which seemed to please him. He opened the book and—who can describe my astonishment?—I saw lined music sheets, but inscribed with no notes.

He began, “Now I shall play the overture. Turn the pages for me, and at the right time!” I promised, and he played wonderfully, masterfully, with full-handed chords the majestic tempo di marcia that opens the overture, almost completely true to the original; but the allegro twisted through Gluck’s main ideas. My astonishment grew with each new, wonderfully ingenious variant he wove into the music. The modulations were excellent—striking without being harsh, and he enriched the melodic lines with figurations, that were ever rejuvenating. His face glowed; his eyebrows knotted as he gave vent to long-repressed fury, then his eyes would swim in tears of deepest nostalgia. Occasionally, while both hands worked out figurations he sang the theme in a pleasant tenor voice; then, using his voice in a quite particular way, he would copy the deep tone of the bass drum. I turned the pages industriously, following the direction of his eyes. The overture came to an end and he fell back exhausted, eyes closed, into the armchair. After a bit he recovered sufficiently to flip through several blank pages in the book and say in a husky voice:

“This, my friend, I wrote when I returned from the realm of dreams. But I betrayed that which is holy to the unholy, and an ice-cold hand seized this glowing heart! It did not break, but I am now cursed to wander among the damned like an unwelcome guest— formless, so that nobody knows me, until the sunflower once again turns its face toward the eternal. Enough! Now let us sing Armida’s scene!”

Then he sang the final scene of Armida with an expression that penetrated my core. It deviated noticeably from the original, but his variants transformed the Gluck scene into a higher power. He gathered everything expressing hate, love, despair, rage, into powerful tones. At times his voice seemed that of a youth; then it would rise from the darkest bass, swelling into tones of penetrating power. All my fibers trembled, I was completely beside myself. When it had ended I threw myself into his arms and managed to gasp: “What is that? Who are you?”

He rose and measured me with a solemn, penetrating look, and when I wanted to enquire further he took the candelabra and disappeared through the door, leaving me in darkness. Almost a quarter-hour passed, I despaired of seeing him again. Orienting myself by the position of the piano I was groping my way toward the door when he suddenly reappeared, holding the candelabra. He was in full gala attire: richly embroidered vest, the dagger in his sash.

I froze as he solemnly approached me, seized me gently by the hand and said, strangely smiling: “I am Ritter Gluck!”

I Think I Like your Organ the Best; A Customer from 1902


I have a large collection of original letters written to the Everhart Organ and Piano Company at 113 South George Street in York, Pennsylvania, during the year 1902. They are mostly letters from people complaining that the instrument that they bought didn't work properly, was not being serviced, or they simply could not make payments any longer.

This letter is part of a different process. W. E Cunningham is interested in buying an organ from Everhart...but not just yet:

November 12, 1902

Gentlemen,
I have been studying over the matter regarding
the organ and it does not suit me to purchase one
just now as I have my winter coal to buy which
will not take any small amt. But I will make this
Proposition with you. I will take it after the holidays
and pay by the month. the weaver organ co has been
at me several times and have maid me a fair offer
But I think I like your organ the best.
well this is the best I can do. Please advise me
what you think of this by return mail
and oblige
yours very truly,
W. E. Cunningham
718 W. Clark Ave

PS
I would Rather talk to you
than wright But I sleep the
Best-part of the day. I want
the organ. But you see
how it is just now
winter coal to Buy

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

You sold me a second handed organ. Another complaint from 1902





Due to popular demand! Another venomous letter from 1902.

I have a large collection of original letters written to the Everhart Organ and Piano Company at 113 South George Street in York, Pennsylvania, during the year 1902. They are letters from people complaining that the instrument that they bought didn't work properly, was not being serviced, or they simply could not make payments any longer.

Tonight's missive is a letter that folds over, so you need to open the right-corner of this letter, in your mind, like a greeting card. It starts off relaxed, but then pleads insufficient funds. The twist happens with Badder. Georgia starts thinking about John. J. Badder and things take a turn toward the twilight zone:

Hampstead Carrol Co.
November 6, 1902

Dear Sir
I drop you these few lines to
let you know
that I ain't got
the money this week
father said that I
should not pay any
More payment until
the organ is fix you
said Mr J. J. Badder
would be around soon

he has not Show
his face since the
organ been here and
Mr Badder has beat me
in my organ we had
some music teacher
here they said the
organ was a second
handed organ I want
a organ for what I
bought it for I bought
it for a Brand new
organ I ain't going to
pay another payment
till Badder fix if it
is six months from
now you send Mr
John. J. Badder around
just as soon as possible.

Your Truly
Georgia
Rice

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Organ is not Giving Satisfaction...An expression of Outrage from 1902


I have a large collection of original letters written to the Everhart Organ and Piano Company at 113 South George Street in York, Pennsylvania, during the year 1902. They are letters from people complaining that the instrument that they bought didn't work properly, was not being serviced, or they simply could not make payments any longer.

I find them charming and funny.

They also reveal something about the nature of how frustration and outrage was expressed in a time when communication took much longer than frustration and outrage.

If you are interested in these I will post more of them.

The letter in the photograph was written on Thursday, November 6, 1902 by William E Armacost. After the first semi-colon it is completely lacking in punctuation--which expresses the problem as a continuous stream of frustration. After the opening salutation the words Organ, Agent and Money are capitalized for emphasis.

Mr Everhart and Bros;
Dear Sir in regards
to the Organ it is not
giving satfaction because
there is one key loose on
the bass and it clatters
you can here it all over
the house please send
your Agent at once
and fix it acording
to the contract then I
will give him some
Money on it

Yours Truly

William E. Armacost

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Met Live in HD; Met's Original-Version Boris Godunov Startles Theater Goers

"Boris Godunov is like a box of chocolates," said Forest Gump just before watching the Met Live in HD, "You never know what you are going to get."

We got a production of Boris Godunov that was scrubbed clean. All the barnacles of the Rimsky-Korsakov version were scraped away and the resulting score, in its original format, remained continually surprising to those of us who learned it through Rimsky.

The monk Piemen (bass Mikhail Petrenko) who writes the history of Russia on huge vellum sheets during the opening of Act One could just as easily have labored over an account of the performance practice of the opera he appeared within; it is no less complicated.

Mussorgsky wrote two radically different version, one in 1869, the other in 1872, and after his death Rimsky-Korsakov took it upon himself to normalize every possible aspect of the score. He filtered rhythms, chords, counterpoint, orchestration, and he even switched the ordering of the two scenes that comprise the final act.

In Rimsky's Act Four the Death of Boris concluded the opera. Conductor Valery Gergiev restored the original ordering in this production, and also included music Mussorgsky wrote and later deleted, often called the St. Basil scene, in the 1869 version.

In the movie theater, the addition of the St. Basil scene confused loyal opera goers. They thought the death of Boris scene would close the opera and began to applaud when the scene closed. When the shrieking orchestral writing of the Revolution Scene began it startled folks, and the orchestra became counterpoint to surprise and bewilderment.

This sense of surprise was as important as the undeniable balancing of scenes and characters in the restored production. The curtain rose before any music was sounded. Tenor Andrey Popov, who played Yurodivïy (the Holy Fool) was already onstage looking at Bass René Pape. He offered him a large stone.

The crowd began to form as the opera took on a more recognizable shape. But when the constables questioned the crowd, "Have you turned to stone?" the reference was colored by Yurodivïy's stone. Throughout the opening scene, the HD cameras found Popov within the crowd and focused in on him. It was an effective use of HD to communicate something unique about his presence within the crowd. As in a frame, when Popov returned in the fourth act his position had already been prepared. His singing was spectral and his presence made an unforgettable impact in this production.

Pape brought rich dimension to Boris Godunov. Warm interactions with his daughter Xenia (soprano Jennifer Zetlan), and son Feodor (male alto Jonathan A. Makepeace), humanized his character. Pape was able to communicate the explosive grinding of a "soul [that] is troubled" while becoming someone we cared about.

With a huge chorus onstage and the large cast this remained a production that created a sense of intimacy. Close shots from the camera brought us into each scene. We were able to press against each singer and move quietly among the crowd.

The prologue and first two acts were grouped together. There were intermissions on either side of Act Three. All inner scenes were given continuously without a curtain separations. This gave a breathless quality to the drama and avoided the segmented quality that this opera sometimes acquires. The movie audience was not distracted by the bland blue backgrounds that many writers have complained about. Tight camera angles kept our attention and the shapes we saw in the background were varied and attractive.

We heard during intermissions that there were 73 musicians onstage in the Met orchestra and more than 200 people negotiated 600 costumes. Pape gave a quick interview just before the third act. He was asked what he would do with an hour off before he sang again in act four. "Secrets," he replied. Secrets? "No, Cigarettes," he said laughing. He said he actually might just relax then warm up a bit. Relaxed intimacy backstage also. This was a very successful broadcast of the Live in HD Series; it brought Boris beaming into the 21st century.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A "Kreutzer Sonata" alternative with slightly lower tuning; A439

It is the second movement of the infamous Kreutzer Sonata that becomes the focus of an unusual story in a charming book of fiction written in 1900 called "A439; Being the Autobiography of a Piano." The book contains a series of 23 chapters with a prologue and epilogue written by various authors and edited by Algernon Rose.

The premise is that a piano is able to write its own story, and it is dedicated "to my tuners good, bad, and indifferent." My favorite title: "She Kissed my Cold Keys."

One of the stories, "How I helped Angus Mackay to Success," by J. C. H. Macbeth of Aberdeen, centers on how the piano comes to the assistance of a young violinist with whom it sympathizes:

"The violinist was Angus Mackay, who had recently fallen in love with and married a very charming young lady. Neither of them was endowed liberally with the good things of this world, but, in their youthful rashness, they had not stopped to consider the prosaic, unromantic question of ways and means, with the result that they were finding it a bitter struggle to make both ends meet. The supreme moment of the young husband's life was now at hand, as the violinist whom Mr. Klug had engaged to play at Herr Flügelbrecher's recital that evening, had found himself unable to appear, and Mackay had been hastily sent for to take his place."

As Flügelbrecher plays the piano the second movement of the Kruetzer sonata, the piano notices a mistake (the piano has, after all, played the work countless times), and decides to help cue the violinist.



"When they reached the glorious Andante I thought that surely Flügelbrecher would allow his artistic feelings to triumph but no, his playing of the opening bars was positively slovenly; and when he came to the ten bars solo, before the second subject [0:49], he hastened the tempo considerably. To my dismay, Mackay did not come in at the end of those ten bars, but seemed to lose himself. The note be should have played was C [1:19], the dominant of the keynote. I determined to help Angus, and, as Flügelbrecher had left my vibrating strings free by holding down the sustaining pedal, I saw my opportunity. I made a supreme effort, and, taking a liberty my designer had done his best to render impossible, I made my overtones so powerful that the dominant C started vibrating loudly enough to reach Mackay's ear, and supply the cue I was anxious to give him, and thus he was able to resume correctly.

"This narrow escape of a breakdown, instead of disconcerting him, seemed to give the violinist more confidence, and he finished the Andante and Variations as if the muse Euterpe herself had inspired him."

This musical pointer is linked to an unusual and often unnoticed place within a work that unfolds like an English Garden. The author needed an entrance on a pitch sustained long enough for the "cue." He also had to find a place that could be referenced in the imagination of his musical readers as they had the book in hand.

Anyway, you've gotta love a piano that is willing to make a "supreme effort."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Adam Mozart

On Sunday, August 4, 1782 a marriage took place in the Stephansdom in Vienna. The groom was listed in marriage register as "The noble Mr. Wolfgang Adam Mozart, a kapellmeister, bachelor."

Adam?

Imagine the box office results of the 1985 movie, starring Tom Hulce, called Adam?

Perhaps this master of name modification, having already used Gnagflow, (read it backwards), found an anagram of Amade and could not resist the impulse, even in this very formal application.

"Renaming," wrote Maynard Solomon in his biography of Mozart, "is a step toward self-creation by fictive means." Solomon explores the idea that the name was a deliberate statement, even if it was a stroke from the unconscious mind.

Solomon develops the idea by comparing Adam with Mozart. "The price of power, favor, and immortality is perpetual innocence and unquestioning obedience." Neither was able to sustain that price.

At this same time, Mozart was unable to produce acceptable documentation of his baptismal certificate. He had sent a letter asking his father to have a new copy sent from Salzburg, but dad was not in a hurry to assist him in marrying...dad believed it would distract and perhaps even wreck his trajectory and potential as a composer.

Adam was not born but directly created by God. He also lacked a certificate.

Mozart's constant alterations of his name," wrote Solomon, "are his way of experimenting with different identities, trying to tune them to his satisfaction."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Music for the Marriage of an Econometrician

Ronan O'Reilly is an econometrician in the Richard Powers novel "Plowing the Dark." He is developing a software system that can predict complex systems, like oil prices, into the distant future. What he cannot predict is that Maura, his lover will no longer wait for him as he codes in the isolation of other fully obsessive coders in Seattle. She will marry another man.

"Stephen is probably no you," she writes to him, "but then again, you're no you, either. At any rate, you're not here anymore are you?"

O'Reilly had "failed to predict the obvious." Lost in thought he makes four passes past his apartment before entering it again to find the one CD that was to be the recessional music played for their own wedding.

Cantata 197, the 6th movement. "A bass aria, for Nach der Trauung (after the wedding), rolling in innocence, sung by a bass whose perfect, amused intonation declared that he had never lived anywhere but here, his vocal chords squarely at home in the bungled, compromised, roundly resonant place nearest to hand."



The music that is quoted begins at [16:12].

O du angenehmes Paar, (O you sweet delightful pair)
Dir wird eitel Heil begegnen, (May all happiness caress you)
Gott wird dich aus Zion segnen (May God from Zion bless you)
Und dich leiten immerdar (and lead you evermore)

Figuration opens this aria in a state of complexity laid upon simple, slowing changing chords. It is music of sweet contradiction.

The opening line is set twice; addressed individually to the couple. The first line is echoed at [0:57] then connected breathlessly to the next three lines which are presented together, then echoed together [1:22] after a strange passing dissonance.

O you sweet, delightful pair.

"O'Reilly raised his ethereal stemware of now-imaginary ambrosia and toasted the pair in question, across a distance that no amount of technology would ever be able to close." (p.300-302).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thinking Classical Symphony; Memory in Prokofiev's first movement

"It seemed to me that if Haydn had lived to our day," wrote Prokofiev in his memoirs, "he would have retained his own style while absorbing something new at the same time."

Prokofiev had studied the music of Haydn intensively with Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945) at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. At this point in his career, Prokofiev was part of the anti-romantic modernist world. "At this moment," wrote William Austin in his lovely account of this work, "the idea of his classical symphony was a joke--a bit of esoteric irony. But to cap the irony, his joke became a popular classic of 20th-century music."

 
The symphony begins with a short rocket figure. This momentary loud gesture ushers a quiet theme in D major [0:07] in a contour that generally wants to fall. The metric structure is set in two 4-bar phrases. At [0:17] there is a collision by which the music is restated in C major. Not Haydn. This music is exactly parallel to the first theme--it is also set in two four-bar phrases. At [0:27] the music jumps back to D major for a lengthy and thematic transition. The D major tonality at [0:27] allows us to understand the passage in C major as being a prolonged lower neighbor. Compare the ideas of Prokofiev with the opening of Haydn's Symphony No. 56 in C major: The juxtaposition of loud and quiet ideas--one introductory and the other thematic is similar. Haydn uses a descending contour in his fanfare and a generally rising line afterward.

The recapitulation of the Prokofiev begins seamlessly out the development with the rocket figure at [2:58]--but this figure is in C major not D major.

The lyrical passage that follows [3:01] is parallel to the exposition but also stays in C major. The length matches the exposition; two four-bar phrases. And at [3:11] we are bumped up again to D major--but this is the music of transition. Prokofiev creates turbulence by omitting one pillar of the figure. This changes our expectations. It creates an accent on the transition.

It also makes us believe that the key of the recapitulation has been altered. The recapitulation "is reaping what was sown in that tiny excursion to C in the first few measures of the piece," writes the ever-perceptive Michael Steinberg.

Our memory of the opening passage leads us to believe that the recapitulation is exactly parallel to the exposition. The very mark of Haydneque construction is that a perception of significant structural change can be created simply by omission.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

An Arrangement that Conjures the Past; Beethoven's Op. 104 in "An Equal Music"

In "An Equal Music," by Vikram Seth," Beethoven's arrangement of the Op. 1 No. 3 Piano Trio (which was published as his Op. 104), becomes an integral part of the storyline.

Soon after his memory of Julia is triggered by the C minor trio, Michael hears about the arrangement that Beethoven did in 1817 of the trio for string quintet. “But that’s crazy. That’s at the wrong end of his life.” In his obsessive pre-internet search for the score and parts he also finds a specific an actual recording of the quintet:

“There are two Beethoven string quintets on the LP: my C minor, so desperately sought, so astonishingly found; and one in E flat major, another complete surprise, though I recall the librarian mentioning in passing its opus number, 4. They were recorded (with an extra viola player) by the Suk quartet and issued in 1977 under the Czech label Supraphon. . . .Bravo. Bravo Suk. Bravo Supraphon. What would I have done if it had not been for you? In twenty minutes I will be back in my flat, but I won’t listen to it immediately. Late tonight, after the rehearsal, I’ll come home, light a candle, lie down on my duvet, and sink into the quintet.”

This LP was re-released on CD in 1999 by Supraphon Archive [SU 3447-2 111]. The specific reference to hearing the trio through Michael’s past its symbolism are developed when Michael hears the transformations made in the arrangement:

"The sound fills the room: so familiar, so well-loved, so disturbingly and enchantingly different. From the moment, a mere ten bars from the beginning, where it is not the piano that answers the violin but the violin itself that provides its own answer, to the last note of the last movement where the cello, instead of playing the third, supports with its lowest, most resonant, most open note the beautifully spare C major chord, I am in a world where I seem to know everything and nothing.

 
(Fine Arts Quartet with Gil Sharon playing the fourth movement of Op. 104)

"My hands travel the strings of the C minor trio while my ears sing to the quintet. Here Beethoven robs me of what is mine, giving it to the other violin; there he bequeaths me of what is mine, giving it to the other violin; there he bequeaths me the upper reaches of what Julia used to play. It is a magical transformation. I listen to it again from beginning to end. In the second movement it is the first violin—who else?—who sings what was the piano’s theme, and the variations take on a strange, mysterious distance, as being, in a sense, variations one degree removed, orchestral variants of variations, but with changes that go beyond what could be explained by orchestration alone."

The musical references harmonize the changes in Michael’s life in relation to Julia. Later, Michael’s quartet is joined by a guest violist to read through the quintet. Julia’s personality as represented by the piano part in the trio is transformed into string parts that now represent Michael’s present. This story now creates a context in which hear Op. 104 as a personality transformed. The first violin sings what was the piano’s theme in Op. 1 No. 3. From the standpoint of personality this allows Michael to visit Julia like only a musician can.

“We play the first movement without stopping, and do not get entangled once. It ends with Piers playing a tremendously zippy set of ascending and descending scales, followed by a huge resonant chord from all five of us, ebbing swiftly away I three softer chords.
We look at one another beaming.”

These passages give us opportunity to hear the trio through the characters, to make contact with how specific passages fit into the lives of its characters. We hear the affect of the music as it intertwines with the circumstances and the strangeness of living. We can hear the exact recording, we can observe and make contact with the exact notes and specific passages that take on or transmit the personality of those who played and loved it. It is also an emblem of a difficult time in his life that he is trying to interpret and transcend.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Vikram Seth vs. Berlioz: Op. 1 no. 3

In "An Equal Music," by Vikram Seth, one of the major figures in the book, the pianist Julia, loves the Opus I No. 3 piano trio in C minor.

"She particularly loved the minor variation in the second movement, though it was almost as if the cello and violin were, in that calm melancholy, robbing her of her own prominence. Whenever she would hear it or play it or even read it in the score, she would move her head slowly from side to side. And she loved the unflamboyant close of the entire work."

(Amelia Piano Trio )

The "unflamboyant close" refers to the ending of the finale, worthy of attention because Beethoven has so many triumphant endings. An unusual figure [Db-C] sounds restlessly [5:12], and we are deflected into a picardy ending in the major with a series of rising scales in the piano part [5:21]. It is an eerie and somewhat unresolved ending. Julia favors design above technique. She is a likable character.

Hector Berlioz reported his reaction to this piece in the quasi-fiction of "Evenings with the Orchestra." But it is amped-up prose; passion bent to the point where it is louder than the music:

“One evening I heard Beethoven’s Trio in C minor: I open wide the door--come in, come in and be welcome, proud melody! Heavens! How noble and beautiful it is! Where, oh where did Beethoven find all those thousands of phrases, each more poetically characterized than the rest, each different, each original, and without even the family resemblance one finds among the melodies of masters that are known for their fertility? And what ingenious developments! What unexpected turns! How swiftly the indefatigable eagle flies! How he hovers poised in his harmonious sky! He dives into it, loses himself in it, soars, swoops again, disappears; then returns to his staring place, his eye more brilliant his pinions stronger, intolerant of rest, quivering, thirsting for the infinite!”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A violinist “sick with memory” and a pianist who gently sways. Vikram Seth; An Equal Music

The plot of "An Equal Music," a book of fiction by Vikram Seth, is built around a core of musical repertoire integral to the storyline itself. References to the Beethoven Piano Trio in C Minor, Op.1 No.3 and the String Quintet Op. 104 operate within a network of symbols about a broken past.

Central character Michael Holme is a violinist “sick with memory,” focused ten years in the past. He frequently muses on a time prior to a breakdown that created chaos in his life. Back then he was a student in Vienna learning the C minor trio with Julia McNicholl as pianist. His musical breakdown interrupted his relationship with jarring suddenness; “Love or no love, I could not continue in that city. I stumbled, my mind jammed, I felt the pressure of every breath.” The trio is a symbol of his relationship with Julia and also of his futile fight not to succumb to the musical personality of Carl Käll, his teacher, “that stubborn musician, brutal and full of suffocating energy,” who believes that Michael spends too much time on chamber music and “could have a better career.”

As Michael observes Julia learning the music her personality stamps itself into details of the score. We make first contact with the music itself as Michael listens to a CD of the work and rethinks his past.

“What wonderful things are his first self-numbered works, a trio of trios that say to the world, yes, these I could bear to be known by. Of them, this is the gem: the Opus I number 3. Carl, of course, disagreed with me; he thought it the weakest of the three.

"It was Julia’s favourite among all Beethoven’s trios. She particularly loved the minor variation in the second movement, though it was almost as if the cello and violin were, in that calm melancholy, robbing her of her own prominence. Whenever she would hear it or play it or even read it in the score, she would move her head slowly from side to side. And she loved the unflamboyant close of the entire work.”

The opus one trios are well known to musicians, and it is entertaining to think of the set as a “trio of trios.” Each trio [Eb, G, C minor] has four movements instead of three, and in many other ways they also strive toward symphonic expression and expansion of materials and forms that later became a Beethoven trademark. Written in 1794 soon after his arrival in Vienna, there is a famous allegation that Haydn took issue with the C minor, feeling that it should not have been published. Seth refashions this historical debate to illustrate opposing preferences between Michael and his teacher Carl Käll.

The jewel of the passage is the reference to the fourth variation, the so-called minor variation. Subjective and descriptive, the passage does not attempt to explain in analytical terms, but deeply personal glimpses of Julia’s personality are revealed through her attachment to traceable references in the music.



This performance from 2009 is by the Daniel Piano Trio: Aleksandr Snytkin, violin, Francesco Mastromatteo, violoncello,and Elena Zyl, piano.

Beethoven patterned the variations by alternating the orchestration. The piano is prominent in variations one [1:20] and three [3:45], the strings in two [2:33] and four [4:51]. The final variation is tutti [6:06], and there is a coda at [7:13]. Julia’s part in variation four is a rhythmically vital syncopation marked differently in both hands. It is a complex way to interact with the primary melodic parts played by the strings.

“Calm melancholy” seeks the affect of the striking color of sound in this dark variation in E-flat minor. The variation is a rounded binary form, but the return at the close of the second section [5:39 and again at 5:56] is altered by inverting the primary melody and changing the piano and cello parts.

Moving her head slowly from side to side seems to reflect thinking in phrases; hearing deeply, and absorbing complex layers of pattern and invention. It shows her to be a sympathetic musician more interested in the total product than in her own role exclusively—a real chamber music player. From a symbolic viewpoint her favorite places involve an awareness of Michael, and parts that of the music in which the violin is significant.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Beethoven in A-flat; Michael Tilson Thomas, Alicia de Larrocha, and Dudley Moore

[1:14] "This key of A-flat, to Beethoven" says Michael Tilson Thomas to Alicia de Larrocha (1923-2009), "is this key of reconciliation."



He plays the first part of the second movement of the fifth symphony as an example, and de Larrocha begins to sing, caught in sympathetic vibration. Thomas compare this to the late masterwork in A-flat major; the Op. 110 sonata. De Larrocha plays the opening of the sonata with a deep and human warmth.

A-flat major then, can be an expression of "the inward, all-forgiving Beethoven. [2:07]"

This clip is from a lovely series of six television programs filmed in 1993 called "Concerto!" Dudley Moore (1935-2002) was interested in further developing the series he began with Sir George Solti (called "Orchestra!") a few years earlier.

This is an early example of Thomas in his role as an educator. Here he is exploring how to create connections to musical style through highly personal collaborations.

Dudley Moore was a trained musician. We think of him laughing in his most famous roles, but he was musical also. At [3:35] he launches into his imitation of Beethoven mixed with the theme from the "Colonel Bogey March." De Larrocha seems to love it and the first time you hear it the charm is irresistible. But Moore did this parody at every available opportunity--there are several versions on YouTube.

Thomas and Moore had a complicated relationship; they respected one another but never quite harmonized. They each expressed it in an interview in "The Independent" from 1993:

Tilson Thomas on Moore:
"Dudley seems to want music to be comforting, and, at the same time, an amusing force which somehow makes it possible for the audience to stand further away from the sadness and confusion of life. For me, the most important part of music is the breadth and depth of emotion. Despite the fact that we were coming at the music from two different places, there was a great deal of trust between us. When I was talking about something with great seriousness, Dudley would frequently add some surreal comment prefaced with 'Come off it, Michael.' He has this extraordinary ability for brilliantly clever repartee - a never-ending comic stream of consciousness."

Moore on Thomas:
"To an extent, musicians are quite isolated and I couldn't imagine Michael with a massive group of friends. I wouldn't say Michael is a friend in the sense of wanting to make sure that he was OK, but he's certainly much more than just an acquaintance. If he were to walk into my kitchen now, I would be absolutely delighted."

Sunday, October 10, 2010

James Huneker's Melomaniacs; Genius, Sanity, Immortality, and "Unconventional Lovemaking"

“Come, let us march against the powers of heaven, And set black streamers in the firmament, To signify the slaughter of the gods.” (Marlowe).

This is the title-page epigraph for James Huneker’s Melomaniacs (1902). It is an invitation that opens the text tilting.

It invokes the political analog to melomania. The phrase is spoken by Tamburlaine on his deathbed. Ambition and ego were such powerful forces in his life that in dying Tamburlaine is tempted to attack and overthrow heaven itself. Force and daring would end the universe by challenging the right of a god to enforce our mortality. It is an audacious spirit.

In his short story "The Queerest Yarn in the World" from Unicorns, we come to understand that immortality was possible for those possessing genius. Citing “Heine’s poetic fantasy of the gods of Greece, alive, and still in hiding,” Huneker claims in his yarn that “only stupid people die.” We receive news that “Sand is a barmaid in London. Balzac is on the road selling knit-goods, and a mighty good drummer he is sure to be.” We discover that Flaubert is proofreading for Ben DeCasseres in a newspaper office. “Men of genius should never be seen; in their works alone they live.”

But what about the "maniac" part of the title? Are these folks of genius teetering on the fringes of sanity?

“I am not setting up an alibi for the sanity of my favorite artists and writers," wrote Huneker in the second volume of his autobiography called Steeplejack, "It is not necessary. There is, take it by and large, more madness among mediocre persons. A little madness is a necessary ingredient in the composition of genius. Nor do I claim that my apes, peacocks, unicorns, egoists, visionaries, melomaniacs and steeplejacks are all geniuses. Again, mediocrity is to the fore, a mediocrity tempered by eccentricities.”

Eccentricities are thought of as musical temperament in Huneker's fiction—an adjustment of vibrations, with little that is perfectly in tune—that reconciles madness and genius. For Huneker's characters, the only escape is to leave an enduring presence in music—an inherently transient artistic medium.

“Their vulgarity, their brutality, their frivolity, their emotional delirium," declared an early unsigned New York Times Book Review, "are supposedly part of the artistic temperament, and do perhaps represent the temptations of the artistic temperament indulged. There is, of course, a certain number of musicians who appear in general society who understand their art, and who, when they talk of it, are more inclined to talk of technique and form than of the emotions produced of their genius. But these are not the musicians portrayed by Mr. Huneker with the daring and we must suppose with the accuracy of a sergeant . . . To anyone who wants to look into the dingy confusion of modern 'Bohemianism' with its unconventional lovemaking, its mingling of art with beer and brandy, its effervescent emotions and its passionate ambitions we commend this book. It will enlighten if it does not please them.” (NYT April 12, 1902 p.247/2)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Met Live in HD; Das Rheingold. Richard Croft is the Elvis of Loge

Circuits have been abuzz about Robert Lepage's new Rheingold production at the Met. But we were raised in an age of cinematic technology. How would it look in a cinema: would Wotan be Indiana Jones?

The production translated onto the silver screen with mixed results. One could imagine the vast spaces of the Met where the motion of the machine must have been spellbinding. The visual impact of the Rheinmaiden scene lived up to the hype. But often, as in the transition from the first scene to the second, we could never get the right angle to sense the depth of the action.

More than technology, we should have focused on the educational potential of this endeavor. It was unforgettable to have the opportunity to hear Wagner in a movie theater.

Imagine. This was the experimental stuff--an opera without duets; without any singing in harmony after the Rheinmaidens leave. This was continuous music sung in high German set in syllabic style derived systematically from prose. It was performed live and beamed all over the world for people eating popcorn and drinking soda.

Forget the technology. It was singing that made this production memorable. Just singing.

What a cast: Bryn Terfel as Wotan, Stephanie Blythe, who sang a buttery Fricka, and Gerhard Siegel who made Mime memorable. Franz-Josef Selig sang Fasolt with such deep romanticism that one wonders why Freia (played by Wendy Byrn Harmer) returned to the Gods at all.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens was an impressive Alberich. Owens is familiar from his role in Doctor Atomic. As Alberich his sound was edgy, his diction fierce. His intensity made the curse real. Owens manufactures drama at will. His Alberich was alter-Wotan.

Richard Croft was the Elvis of Loge. His singing was filled with cleverness; full of windows that opened on new ideas. He voiced the the surprisingly lyrical music near the end of the second scene with curves as lovely as the silhouette of Freia lit with magical red light from the bottom of his hands.

A good Rheingold creates both stillness and tension. It is a strange opera. Perfect for a movie theater.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Red-Headed Piano Player; a musical story of identity from 1902

“After the book came out," wrote James Huneker in his memoirs, "I met Jeannette Gilder, and she reproached me: ‘You of all men, from you I expected the real fiction about music.’ I replied: ‘It is not only about music, but it is music itself,’ and then wondered what I meant. I had avoided the sentimental raptures of the Charles Auchester and The First Violin type of musical novels, endeavoring to make music the hero. That is why Arthur Symons said that I wrote as if music was a living thing.”

The "Red-Headed Piano Player" is a story from Huneker's book Melomaniacs (1902). It is about the struggle to assemble the true identity of a brilliant piano player performing in a bar and grill in Coney Island. He looks like Paderewski. The story is a turn-of-the-century twist on two guys that "sit at the bar and put bread in my jar and say 'man, what are you doin’ here.'"

The tempo of the writing is dictated by the tempo and attitude of the music quoted within it. Music is a living thing:


THE RED-HEADED PIANO PLAYER
by James Huneker, 1902


The two young men left the trolley car that carried them from Bath Beach to the West End of Coney Island, and walked slowly up the Broad Avenue of Confusing Noises, smoked and gazed about them with the independent air that notes among a million the man from New York.

And as they walked they talked in crisp sentences, laughing at the seller of opulent Frankfurter sausages and nodding pleasantly to the lovely ladies in short, spangled skirts, who, with beckoning glances, sought their eyes.

The air reverberated with an August evening's heat and seemed sweating. Its odor modulated from seabrine to Barren Island, and the wind hummed. The clatter was striking; ardent whistling of peanut steam-roasters, vicious brass bands, hideous harps, wheezing organs, hoarse shoutings and the patient, monotonous cry of the fakirs and photographers were all blended in a dense, huge symphony; while the mouse-colored dust churned by the wheels of blackguard beachwagons blurred a hard, blue sky from which pricked a soft, hanging star.

An operatic sun had just set with all the majestic tranquillity of a fiery hen; and the two friends felt laconically gay. "Let's eat here," suggested the red-haired one.

"Not on your life," answered the other, a stout, cynical blond; "you get nothing but sauerkraut that isn't sour and dog-meat sausage. I'm for a good square meal at Manhattan or Sheepshead Bay."

"Yes, but Billy, there's more fun here, and heavens knows I'm dead tired." The young fellow's accents were those of an irritable, hungry human animal, and his big chum gave in. . .

They searched the sandy street for a comfortable beer place, and after passing dime-museums, unearthly looking dives, amateur breweries, low gin mills and ambitious establishments, the pair paused opposite a green, shy park of grass and dwarf trees, and listened.

"Piano playing, and not bad," cried Billy. They both hung over the rustic palings and heard bits of Chopin's Military Polonaise, interrupted by laughter and the rattling of crockery.

 
"I'm for going in, Billy," and they read the sign which announced a good dinner, with music, for fifty cents. They followed the artificial lane to a large summer cottage, about which were bunched drooping willows and, finding all the tables occupied, went inside. A long room furnished for dining, gaudy pictures on the walls, and at one end upon a raised platform a grand piano. The place was full; and the tobacco-smoke, chatter and calls of the waiters disconcerted the two boys. Just then the piano sounded. Chopin again, and curious to know who possessed such a touch at Coney Island, the friends found a table to the right of the keyboard and sat down. As they did, they looked at the pianist and both exclaimed: "Paderewski or his ghost!" The fellow wore a shock of lemon-tinted hair after the manner of the Polish virtuoso, but his face was shaven clean. "Harry, he looks like a lost soul," said Billy, who was rather plain spoken in his judgments. "Let's give him a drink," whispered Harry, and he called a waiter. "Whiskey," said the waiter after a question had been put, and presently the piano player was bowing to them as he threw the liquor into his large mouth. Then the Chopin study in C minor was recommenced and half-finished and the two music lovers forgot their dinner. A waiter spoke to them twice; the manager, seeing that music was hurting trade, went to the piano and coughed. The pianist instantly stopped, and a dinner was ordered by Harry. Billy looked around him with a trained eye. He noticed that the women were all sunburned and wore much glittering jewelry; the men looked like countrymen and were timid in the use of the fork. When the music began they stopped eating and their companions ordered fresh drinks. Billy could have sworn that he saw one woman crying. But as soon as the music ceased conversation began, and the rattle of dishes was deafening. "I say, Harry, this is a queer go. There's something funny about this place and this piano. It upsets all my theories of piano music. When the piano begins here the audience forgets to eat, and its passion mounts to its ears. Not like the West End at all, is it ?" Harry was busy with his soup. He was sentimental, and the sight of kindred hair--the hue beloved of Paderewski--roused his sympathies. "By George, Billy, that fellow's an artist. Just look at his expression. There's a story in him, and I'm going to get it. It may be news." They chatted, and asked the pianist to join them in another drink. Whiskey was sent up to the platform, and the musician drank it at a gulp, his right hand purling over the figuration of " Auf dem Wasser zu Singen."  
But he took no water. Then making them a little bobbing, startled bow, he began playing. Again it was something of Chopin. On his lean features there was a look of detachment; and the watchers were struck with the interesting forehead, the cheeks etched with seams of suffering, and the finely compressed lips. "I'll bet it's some German who has boozed too much at home, and his folks have thrown him out," hinted Billy. "German? That's no German, I swear. It's Hungarian, Bohemian or Pole. Besides, he drinks whiskey." "Yes, drinks too much, but it hasn't hurt his playing--yet: just listen to the beggar play that prelude."
 
The B flat minor Prelude, with its dark, rich, rushing cascade of scales, its grim iteration and ceaseless questioning, spun through the room, and again came the curious silence. Even the Oberkellner listened, his mouth ajar. The waiters paused midway in their desperate gaming with victuals, and for a moment the place was wholly given over to music. The mounting unison passage and the smashing chords at the close awakened the diners from the trance into which they had been thrown by the magnetic fluid at the tips of the pianist's fingers; the bustle began, Harry and Billy ordered more beer and drew deep breaths. "He's a wonder, that's all I know, and I'm going to grab him. What technique, what tone, what a touch! " cried Harry, who had been assistant music critic on an afternoon paper. A card,with a pencilled invitation, was sent to the pianist, and the place being quite dark the electric lights began hoarsely whistling in a canary colored haze. The musician came over to the table and, bowing very low, took a seat. "You will excuse me," he said, "if I do not eat. I have trouble with my heart, and I drink whiskey. Yes, I will be happy to join you in another glass of very bad whiskey. No, I am not a Pole; I am English, and not a nobleman. I look like Paderewski, but can't play nearly as well. Here is my card." The name was commonplace, Wilkins, but was prefixed by the more unusual Feodor. "You've some Russian in you after all?" questioned Billy. "Perhaps. Feodor is certainly Russian. I often play Tschaïkowsky. I know that you wonder why I am in such a place. I will tell you. I like human nature, and where can you get such an opportunity to come into contact with it in the raw as this place?" Billy winked at Harry and ordered more drinks. The pale Feodor Wilkins drank with the same precipitate gesture, as if eager with thirst. He spoke in a refined manner, and was evidently an educated man. "I have no story, my friends. I'm not a genius in disguise, neither am I a drunkard— one may safely drink at the seaside—and if, perhaps, like Robert Louis Stevenson, I play at being an amateur emigrant, I certainly do not intend writing a book of my experiences." The newspaper boys were disappointed. There was, then, no lovely mystery to be unravelled, no subterrene story excavated, no romance at all, nothing but a spiritual looking Englishman with an odd first name and a gift of piano playing. Mr. Wilkins gave a little laugh, for he read the faces of his companions. As if to add another accent to their disappointment he ordered a Swiss cheese sandwich, and spoke harshly to the waiter for not bringing mustard with it. Then he turned to Harry: "You love music?" "Crazy for it, but see here, Mr.—Mr. Wilkins, why don't you play in public? I don't mean this kind of a public, but before a Philharmonic audience! This sort of cattle must make you sick, and for heaven's sake, man, what do they pay you?" Harry's face was big with suppressed questions. The pianist paused in his munching of bread and cheese. His fine luminous eyes twinkled: "My dear boy, I have a story—a short one—and I fancy that it will explain the mystery. I am twenty-seven years old. Yes, that's all, but I've lived and—loved." "Ah, a petticoat!" exclaimed Harry, triumphantly; "I was sure of it." "No, not a petticoat, but a piano was the cause of my undoing. Vaulting ambition and all that sort of thing. My parents were easy in circumstances and I was brought up to be a pianist. Deliberately planned to be a virtuoso. I was sent to Leschetizky, to Von Bülow, to Rubinstein, to Liszt. I studied scales in Paris with Planté, trills in Bologna with Martucci, octaves with Rosenthal; in Vienna I met Joseffy, and with him I studied double notes. Wait until later and I shall play for you the Chopin Study in G sharp minor! I mastered twenty-two concertos and even knew the parts for the triangle. Then at the age of twenty-five, after the best teachers in Europe had taught me their particular craft I returned to England, to London, and gave a concert. It was an elaborate affair. The best orchestra, with Hans Richter, was secured by my happy father, and after the third rehearsal he embraced me, saying that he could go to his grave a satisfied man, for his son was a piano artist. There must have been a strain of Slavic in the old man, he loved Chopin and Tschaïkowsky so. My mother was less demonstrative, but she was as truly delighted as my father. Picture to yourself the transports of these two devoted old people! And when I left them the night before the concert I really trembled. "In my bedroom I faced the mirror and saw my secret peering out at me. I knew that if I failed it would kill my parents, who, gambler-like, were staking their very existence on my success. As the night wore white I grew more nervous, and at dawn, not being able to endure the strain a moment more, I crept out of doors and went to a public house and began drinking to settle my nerves." "I told you it was whiskey," blurted out Billy. "No, brandy," said Mr. Wilkins, looking into his empty glass, "now it's whiskey. Yes; thank you very much. Well, to proceed. "I drank all day, but being young I did not feel it particularly. I went home, ran my fingers over the piano, got into a bath and dressed for the concert. At eight o'clock the carriage came, and at eight forty-five, with one more drink in me, I walked out on the platform as bold as you please, and despite the size of the audience, the glare of the lights and the air, charged with human electricity, I felt rather at ease. The orchestra went sailing into the long tutti of the F minor Concerto of Chopin, and Richter, I could feel, was in good spirits.
My cue came [2:30]; I took it, struck out and came down the piano in the introductory unisons—-a divine beginning, isn't it?—-and my tone seemed rich and virile. I played the first theme [2:39], and all went well until the next interlude for the orchestra [6:48]; I looked about me confidently, feeling quite like a virtuoso, and soon spied my parents, when suddenly my knees began to tremble, trembled so that the damper pedal vibrated. Then my eyes blurred and I missed my cue [7:40] and felt Richter's great spectacles burning into the side of my head like two fierce suns. I scrambled, got my place, lost it, rambled and was roused to my position by the short rapping of the conductor's stick on his desk. The band stopped, and Herr Richter spoke gruffly to me: "'Begin again.' "In a sick, dazed way I put my fingers on the keys, but they were drunk; the cursed brandy had just begun to work, and a minute later, my head reeling, I staggered through the orchestra, lurched against a contrabassist, fell down and was shoved out of sight. "I lay in the artists' room perfectly content, and even enjoyed the pinched chalky face of my father as he stooped over me. "'My God, the boy's drunk,' he cried, and big Richter nodded his head quite philosophically, 'Ja, er ist ganz besoffen,' and left us to go to the audience. I fell asleep.... The next evening I found, on awakening, a horrible headache and a letter from my father. I was turned out of doors, disowned, and bade to go about my business. So here I am, gentlemen, as you see, at your service, and always thirsty." The friends were about to put a hundred questions, when a thin, acid female voice broke in: "Benny, don't you think you've wasted enough of the gentlemen's time? You'd better get to work. The people are nearly all gone." Feodor Wilkins started to his feet and blushed as an old, fat woman, wearing a Mother Hubbard of gross pattern, waddled toward the table. The sad pianist with the flaming hair turned to the boys: "My wife, Mrs. Wilkins, gentlemen!" The lady took a seat at Billy's invitation and also a small drink of peppermint and whiskey. She told them that she was tired out; business had been good, and if Benny would only quit drinking and play more popular music, why, she wouldn't complain! Then she drank to their health, and Billy thought he saw the husband make a convulsive movement in his throat. It may have been caused by hysterical mortification—the woman was undeniably vulgar—but to the practical-minded Billy it was more like an envious involuntary swallowing at the sight of another's drinking. Then the pianist mounted his wooden throne, where, amid the dust and tramplings of low conquests and in the murky air, he began to toll out the bells of the Chopin Funeral March.  
 "Funny how they all quit eatin' and drinkin' when he speels, isn't it?" remarked the wife with a gratified smile. "Why, if he was half a man he'd play all day as well as night and then folks out yonder would forgit their vittles altogether. I suppose he give you the same old yarn?" Harry bristled: "What old story, madame? Mr. Feodor Wilkins told us of his studies abroad and his unsuccessful debut in London. It's a beautiful story. He's a great artist, and you ought to be proud of him." The woman burst into laughter. "Why, the old fraud has been stringing you. Fedder, he calls himself! His name is Benny, just plain Benny Wilkins, and he never saw London. He's from Boston way, took lessons at some big observatory up there, and he run up such a big slate with me that he married me to sponge it out. Schwamm d'ruber! you know. My first husband left a nice little tavern, and them music stoodents just flocked out after lessons was over to drink beer. Oh, dear me, Benny was a nice boy, but he always did drink too much. Then we moved to Harlem and I rented this place for the summer. I expect to make a tidy sum before I leave, if Benny only stays straight." There was something pathetic in this last cadence, and the two boys leaned back and listened to the presto of the Chopin B flat minor Sonata, which Wilkins took at a tremendous pace.
"Sounds as if he were the wind weaving over his own grave," said Harry, mournfully. The boys had drunk too much, and the close atmosphere and music were beginning to tell on their nerves.

"He's a tramp of genius, that's what he is," growled Billy crossly.

"But we've got a story," interjected the other.

"Yes, and were taken in finely. Hanged if I did n't believe the fellow while he was yarning."

"You gentlemen won't mind me leaving you, will you? It's near closing-up time, and I've got to be the boss. Benny, he sticks close to the pianner as it gits late. I reckon he feels his licker. Ain't he a dandy with them skinny fingers o' his?"
She moved away, giving her husband a warning not to leave his perch, and went barwards to overhaul her receipts....

The lights were nearly all out and the drumming of the breakers on the beach clearly could be felt. The young men paid their bill and shook hands with the pianist. He leaned over the edge of the platform and spoke to them in a low voice.

"Come again, gentlemen, come again. Don't mind what she tells you. I'm not her husband, no matter what she said just now. She owns me body and soul for this year. I swear to God it's not the drink. I need the experience in public. I must play all the time before that awful nervous terror wears off. This is the place to get in touch with common folk; if I can hold them with Chopin what won't I be able to do with an appreciative audience! Believe me, gentlemen, I pray of you; give me a year, only one year, and I'll get out of this nervousness and this nightmare, and the world of music will hear of me. Only give me time." Feodor Wilkins placed his hand desperately on the pit of his stomach; his wife screamed:

"Benny, come right over here and count the cash."

The boys got into the open air and scented the surf with delight, a moon enlaced with delicate cloud streamers made magic in the sky; then Harry growled:

"Say, Bill, do you believe that story?"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bach Cantata 191; Dazzle in Late Bach

The last decade of Bach’s life had the feel of a musician’s retirement; he worked and taught as much as ever, but nonetheless found ways to shift his creativity away from regular duties as Cantor in Leipzig to projects of a more personally satisfying nature. These projects including The Art of Fugue and the compilation of the B Minor Mass. So it was natural that when regular duty asked for a Christmas Cantata in 1743, he responded with Cantata No. 191, an adaptation of the Gloria used in the B Minor Mass, originally written as early as 1733.

The Gloria of the B minor Mass had eight movements, which Bach condensed to three in Cantata No. 191 by keeping only the first, the last, and one of the middle movements. This maintained the overall feel of the original but broke the continuity of the text, which was restored by changing the text in the second and third movements to a Doxology. This linked the second and third movements together as a unit, separated them from the first, and closed off the work as a whole. But it challenged Bach to rework a new text into music originally built around different words.

This lively live performance of the opening movement is propelled by standing strings and Baroque winds:



The opening movement differs only in microscopic details from the B Minor Mass. It divides in sections that contrast to savor each line of the standard Gloria text. The first, (Gloria in excelsis Deo), is set as a celebration in strongly punctuated counterpoint that dances in pure joy.

The second line [1:50] (et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis) steps off the edge. The tempo and time signature change. Dancing is balanced by quietly shifting elegance. The voices cadence [2:31]. An instrumental interlude cuts further along an edge to prepare a new fugue [2:58] about the pleasures of being ornate.

Twenty-one measures at the end of the duet for soprano and tenor in the pastoral second movement was eliminated from the corresponding place in the B-Minor Mass in order to better anticipate the burst of energy which opens the third movement. Strongly contrasting textures of quickly articulated syllables balanced against coloratura close a work that is a classic example of compositional process in late Bach.

Bach, even in false retirement and somewhat disgruntled, could still dazzle.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Glenn Gould playing La Valse; and playing "nice" with Bernstein

"The Art of Piano; Great Pianists of the 20th-Century," was released in 1999 by Nvc Arts. It is a documentary with segments consisting of commentary, interviews and performances by several significant musicians.

The segment about Glenn Gould is extraordinary not for the commentary and interviews, but for the playing itself. It would have been improved if it were only musical without verbal commentary:



At [0:36] the young Gould allows us into his home to see the reflection of his mind in this physical living space. He is already playing as he approaches the piano. He crosses his leg informally, the same kind of informality as expressed by his forgotten tea cup and saucer that sits unnoticed on his desk.

He plays the opening C-minor chord of the sinfonia from Bach's second partita. The opening chord looks vertical on the page, and it also looks isolated because it is separated from other events by silences. Gould launches the chord with his body, energizing it. It is not a vertical sound but one that is spread in time; he moves his elbow sharply to the right to push the sound in his imagination.

He is singing.

At [1:05] we discover a second camera in the room. Gould may have been informal but this session was not. The second camera allows us to see him oscillating as he develops this phrase, moving it steadily, almost systematically toward the dominant.

Do you recognize the music at [2:07]? It is strangely familiar; but it is wearing unexpected clothing. It is the piano version of "La Valse" by Ravel. The clip begins at during the final pages at the moment when the dance is taken apart by the centrifugal force that has been acted upon it. How fabulous to hear Gould play this music. It is not the idiom with which we associate him; he is not one who waltzed. But the hesitations, the lightening figuration, and even that futuristic blue background communicate with clarity.

The final segment is one of the famous collaborations between Gould and Leonard Bernstein. We are dropped into the concerto in the passage leading to the notated cadenza.

At [5:02] Bernstein turns to observe Gould playing this ecstatic passage. The physical interaction between mechanical and human expression is clear. The gentle lift in lines as the orchestra returns is picked up by Bernstein. As the lines accelerate Gould is able to maintain quiet focused hands. The camera angles give us a very expressive look at this historical moment; this extraordinary personality.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Thinking Academic Festival Overture

The Academic Festival Overture was written by Brahms in the summer of 1880 as a measure of appreciation for an honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree he received from Breslau University.

Brahms was never a University student himself, but was conversant with student drinking songs. Malcolm MacDonald observed that these songs were "venerable and popular enough to be counted a species of folk music [by Brahms], and treated with similar fondness."

The overture begins with a long introduction that moves from darkness into a sudden light. It opens in C minor with a tune that has the feel of a military drum cadence. It is immediately escalated through development [0:11] and is broken during its restatement [0:21] by two sequences using diminished chords.



A sudden break [0:36] takes us into F major for a chorale-like tune scored for violas that is quickly deflected [0:50] into D-flat major. The music hovers momentarily before committing to restatement.

The marching tune returns [1:01] but is interrupted again by a fanfare [1:08] The dotted rhythms and strongly articulated attitude of this passage will return later in the work, but this first appearance is derailed and the music enters a transitional phase [1:20].

The bright trumpet fanfare at [1:36] seems from a different world. It shines in C major. This passage reveals the large brass section that is a significant feature of this work, which is the largest orchestra for which Brahms ever wrote. This fanfare brings an element of continuity and steady escalation that is new to the musical process of this overture.

The Exposition follows on the most glorious moment in the exposition by unfolding a C major triad through its series of modulations. It begins with a motive derived from the marching tune of the introduction [2:13]. Like the original treatment of that passage, developmental motives are explored almost immediately.

A transition derived from ideas in the introduction begins at [2:50]. It includes a registral linking in octaves that creates a new space for the upcoming theme. This passage will become an important marker later in the movement.

The second theme group sounds in E major [3:12]. It disintegrates during its restatement and becomes a transition toward the final theme group.

The third theme group [4:01] completes the triadic modulation scheme by sounding in G Major. It is music in the habit of interrupting itself; its humor is enthusiastic displacement.

There is no clear demarcation between the exposition and the development [4:45]; it feels joined to the process of exposition. The development is about the music of fragments. A strongly syncopated vision of the third theme group [5:31] stands apart from the other misted references.

Ideas from the introduction return with greater frequency: the diminished sequence
Obsession with groupings of three, the fanfare from [1:08]. Stopped horns mark a transition in thinking. The introductory military drum cadence returns and provokes screaming high violin writing.

There is also no clear demarcation between the development and the recapitulation because the return to C major happens only with the music of the second theme group previously heard in E major.

The music is parallel and brings back the third theme group in C major scored triumphantly for brass.

The process is interrupted as the coda crashes upon us. The tune "Gaudeamus igitur" is sounded within in a huge swirling tutti. The work ends in triumph and high spirits.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Brahms and Gold Records

According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) a gold record is earned when a recording has sold one-half a million copies. The first gold record that was RIAA-certified was this 1958 gem from Perry Como:

 

Part of the credit for that golden record could have gone to Brahms because the tune was ripped cleanly from the Academic Festival Overture at [4:00]:


In 1993 a gold edition of the album "Fragile" by the band Yes was released. On it was this song called "Cans and Brahms" which is based on synthesized ideas from the third movement of the Brahms Symphony No. 4:

There was no Brahms on the Voyager Golden Record. Instead the classical music world was represented by three selections from Bach, two from Beethoven, an exerpt from The Rite of Spring, and a short work by Anthony Holborne. Oh, and the Queen of the Night Aria from Magic Flute:
 

This aria, "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" (The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart), must have been included just in case aliens in distant galaxies thought we came in peace. But Brahms himself wrote a song, "Gold überwiegt die Liebe" (Gold Prevails over Love), in which musical tears are shed over the decision to chose gold over love:
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