Thursday, December 16, 2010

Don’t “Listen to This?” Too much Ross in a review of Ross by Lebrecht

In a recent review of “Listen to This,” by Alex Ross, Norman Lebrecht is critical of what is not present in the book: dislike. Perhaps Ross should develop a third volume called “Don’t Listen to This.”

“Great critics are measured more by their courage to be disliked,” wrote Lebrecht, “by their capacity for dishing it out and taking the inevitable backlash, by their willingness to face the music.[…] The greatest critics do not mind being proved wrong.”

Critics do need to be independent and willing to state unpopular views. But is that the most important means by which they should be measured? This would be like defending the entries in Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective” by noting that it took courage to express those views which have been soooo “proven wrong.”

“Eduard Hanslick,” writes Lebrecht, “is better remembered for caustically hating Wagner in 19th-century Vienna than for tamely admiring Brahms.” Maybe, but Hanslick also wrote that the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is music “which stinks to the ear.” Shouldn’t Hanslick be remembered instead for “On the Beautiful in Music,” one of the great early texts on aesthetics?

It is insights that one seeks, not likes or dislikes. Value judgment seems less important than rationale. I am less interested in what Ross dislikes than I am in his insights.

Many of the best insights in the Lebrecht review are positive:

“Ross is an avowed buff. He loves music with a nerdish obsession and he wants you to love it as much he does. […] Ross drew creative links between serious and popular music. Music is music, he argues. […] Ross is also credited with […] making new music an acceptable topic of dinner-table conversation.”

I would like to see Ross invest his charisma in deeper levels of analysis. To go beyond the journalistic into the kind of thinking represented by a book like “On the Beautiful in Music.”

Still, it is the educational potential in both books by Ross that makes them worthy. One imagines that people who are fascinated by other styles of music might pick up one of these Ross books and join the conversation with those of us who find energy, and relevance, in classical music.

I enjoy both Lebrecht and Ross; I am so sorry.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Insights on Don Carlo from Ferruccio Furlanetto and Simon Keenlyside

Simon Keenlyside as Rodrigo and Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip II
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

This particular trasmission of Don Carlo, which was part of the Met Live in HD had aa rich collection of mid-production interviews with the cast. During the live transmission of Don Carlo, Deborah Voigt interviewed both Ferruccio Furlanetto and Simon Keenlyside.

She asked about Furlanetto about his motivation in the great duet between Philip and Rodrigo that closes Act II:

"Philip," replied Furlanetto, "in his court cannot find anybody that he can trust. He has a very bad relationship with his son [Don Carlo], and Rodrigo is the only man in his court on whom he can rely. He is the son he would have loved to have, instead of poor Carlos."

"Therefore it is the only moment in which you can see Philip opening his heart to somebody. You will never see it in the rest of the opera, except in the big aria (act IV scene I) when I am alone, and am opening my heart. But to another person this is the only time."

It is wonderful how Furlanetto switched from pronouns that signify his character to those that signify himself. Voigt asked Keenlyside what fuels the relationship between Rodrigo and Don Carlo:

"I must be manipulative," responded Keenlyside seemingly in character, "but not too manipulative. Because the ring-master in this piece is Philip. And this scene that you've just seen (Act II scene II) that through coercion, through persuasion, through flattery, Philip gets what he wants from the young idealist. An idealist and a zealot I must be. But at the same time, Carlos is fragile, and I want him to do something for me. I need him to maintain this pact we've had since childhood about freedom for Flanders. So I have to try to be manipulative as a character, but not too much so. I don't want to be in the same camp as Philip, otherwise I ruin the dynamic between the two of us."

Keenlyside is the inversion of Furlanetto--he starts in character then suddenly, and seemingly unconsciously, breaks free to speak about "the character." Voigt moves back to Furlanetto:

"This man, historically at that time," said Furlanetto about Philip, "was the most powerful man on Earth. Nevertheless he had terrible moments of solitude; he was just a normal human being. Therefore he is very happy because of the relationship he has with his son. [...] And of course there is this political turmoil in his brain because even though he is the most powerful man on Earth, he knows that the Church is over him. Every major decision will be made by the Church and not by the king."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Marina Poplavskaya; Verdi is so Russian! Her interview with Debra Voigt during Live in HD Don Carlo

Marina Poplavskaya and Roberto Alagna in Don Carlo
Photograph by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

One of the pleasures of the Met Live in HD is the mid-production interviews with the cast. During the live transmission of Don Carlo, Deborah Voigt interviewed Marina Poplavskaya.

Voigt began with a simple question. Why has drawn Poplavskaya to Verdi heroines?

"[He] is so Russian," she replied immediately. One can imagine the ripples of amused laughter that echoed in theaters everywhere as it did in the one in which I sat.

"Because you see the Russian composers and poets always went to Italy...We love each other; these countries." One thinks of Glinka who travelled there for several years in the early 1830s. Poplavskaya always gets the last laugh.

"I think the greatest acting challenge [in Don Carlo] is to stay calm. Verdi put in so many colors and every color is right so you have to choose right on the spot. [...] I find most of the feelings in my heart. But I must say it is not very pleasant to dig in my own trash [laughs]."

"I see [Elizabeth] as a woman. Like all Verdi heroine [she] is vulnerable, strong, and a great human being. I learn so much from Verdi's roles"

In the dramatic centerpiece of her role as Elizabeth, the fifth act aria "Tu che le vanità," Poplavskaya taught us about Verdi's colors. She taught us about endurance and grace.

"Se ancor si piange in cielo, (if there is still pity in heaven)"

She sang this central stanza quietly in F-sharp major with the high G-sharps in each line dolcissimo, as marked, and with unbroken legato line. Her sound floated.

"piangi sul mio dolore, (mourn over my sorrow)
e porta il pianto mio (and carry my tears.)"

Poplavskaya was especially gentle in these lines and connected the three note melisma on the word "porta" using portamento.

She succeeded in "staying calm." The rest of is did not. We burst into applause. Brava.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

An Elemental Don Carlo; Met Live in HD Review

The new Met production of Don Carlo was just transmitted as part of the "Live in HD" season in theaters all over the world. It was a production of efficiencies that magnified elemental elements to help focus the power of this Verdian masterpiece.

Producer Nicholas Hytner, who also directs London's National Theatre, and Bob Crowley who was the set and costume designer, worked together to streamline this colossal opera by focusing on a limited palette of colors: blacks and grayish whites, bright reds and golds. There were also innumerable crosses--some in plain view as religious icons, others cut into negative spaces in walls.

The messages were clear. Gold was authority, red was blood but also power.

[Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]

This streamlining was helpful in providing a visual analog to the saturated emotional lines that run through the music in this opera. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin kept the sound leaning forward and on the edge of falling over. The first two acts were also linked together through clever transformations so that the action left a compressed and restless impression. The Met orchestra sounded fabulous--even over movie house-speakers.

Don Carlo is opera that is frictionized through a checkerboard of duets between characters. As the development of this opera unfolded, it was the infrequent but extended solo arias that cut through and left us breathless.

Marina Poplavskaya sang Elisabeth de Valois. When we first met her she came onstage and pointed a rifle at us; she was an outdoorswoman--a force of nature. This production followed the five-act 1867 version of the opera, but opened without the chorus of woodcutters and their wives.

Poplavskaya and Roberto Alagna (as Don Carlo) clicked.

Elizabeth blossomed in her brief love with Carlo in the Forest of Fontainebleau, but then as she was promised to Carlo's father Philip, she quickly became a queen with issues.

Poplavskaya brought out the complexities of this role and her voice seemed to strengthen as the work progressed. She sang "Tu che le vanità" in Act five with devastating fluency and controlled quiet singing that highlighted the primal drama of one who longs for death as a release.

Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip II was also impressive. He was able to reveal the complex frustrations of this character and received thunderous applause for his act IV solo "Ella giammai m'amò."

Alagna was impressive as Don Carlo. He was able, both through his singing and his motions onstage, to signify the illogical and impulsive motivations of Carlo and yet also made us care about him.

Simon Keenlyside brought richness to Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. He played Posa as the brains of the operation, always thinking one step ahead. His scene with Furlanetto at the end of the second act was riveting and made the dark side seem even darker.

Verdi wrote this opera an ending of mists and questions; one never knows quite how things will go down. This production took a definitive course consistent with its elemental colors and forces: the kings guard stab Don Carlo and he dies in the arms of Elizabeth. The natural course, even when violent, wins out over the supernatural in this memorable production.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rachmaninoff, Marilyn Monroe and Milan Kundera; A Fantasia

In the 1955 film called "The Seven Year Itch," the character Richard Sherman (played by Tom Ewell imagines that he is able to seduce "The Girl," who is played by Marilyn Monroe. The plan for the seduction: classical music.

Sherman rejects a disc by Debussy and passes over Ravel before finding Stravinsky. But upon reflection; "Stravinsky'll only scare her."

It is the second piano concerto by Rachmaninoff that if perfect. As the bell-chords that open the work move into the opening theme Marilyn Monroe comes into is a fantasy sequence.

She wears a tiger-skin dress and is smoking a cigarette. Sherman reclines at the piano in a smoking jacket that looks like it came from the closet of Hugh Heffner. The conversation is deliberately campy and fabulous:

"Rachmaninoff... It isn't fair... Every time I hear it, I go to pieces... It shakes me, it quakes me. It makes me feel goose-pimply all over. I don't know where I am or who I am or what I'm doing. Don't stop. Don't stop. Don't ever stop!"

This scene is a lovely parody of what Milan Kundera calls "Homo Sentimentalis" in his novel "Immortality:"

"Homo Sentimentalis cannot be defined as a man with feelings (for we all have feelings), but as a man who has raised feelings to a category of value. As soon as feelings are seen as a value, everyone wants to feel; and because we all like to pride ourselves on out values, we have a tendency to show off our feelings."

"As soon as we want to feel...feeling is no longer feeling but an imitation of feeling, a show of feeling."

"Europe: great music and homo sentimentalis. Twins nurtured side by side in the same cradle. Music taught the European not only a richness of feeling, but also the worship of his feelings and his feeling self."

It takes Marilyn Monroe to play homo sentimentalis to the perfect laugh.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Thinking December with Tchaikovsky

The Russian magazine "Nouvellist" commissioned Tchaikovsky to write twelve short piano pieces inspired by the each of the twelve months. The corresponding music appeared in each publication in 1876. Collected in publication later the work became "The Seasons," Op. 37a.

The editor chose subtitles that set the mood for each month. December was inspired by images of Christmas. An additional epigraph from Korney Chukovsky sets the mood:

Décembre: Noël
Once upon a Christmas night the girls were telling fortunes:
taking their slippers off their feet and throwing them out of the gate.

Tchaikovsky celebrates the holiday season with a festive waltz memorable for its hesitation on the third beat of the second phrase [0:18]. This "molto ritardando" emphasizes all three beats of the measure, but when the waltz tempo resumes we want to hear the measure as a hypermetric downbeat and yet it is an upbeat because it is the cadence of a four-bar phrase. Our sense of dancing is confounded. Pleasantly confounded.

This sense of being confounded is developed in the transition beginning at [0:34]. Ideas are sequenced and cycled, cut and folded. A measure is dropped [0:42] and we enter the contrasting waltz [0:46] propelled and worried about tripping.

"It is now December," wrote English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626), "and hee that walkes the streets, shall find durt on his shooes."

His entry, from "The Twelve Moneths," talks of hard edges and even of suffering. "Now Hennes, beside Turkies, Geese and Duckes, besides beefe and Mutton, must all die for the great feast, for in twelue dayes a multitude of people will not be fed with a little."

But his mood lifts: "Now plummes and spice, Sugar and Hiney, square it among pies and broth, and Gossip I drinke to you, and I pray you bee merrie."

What about last minute shopping in 1626? "Strange stuffes will be well sold, strange tales well told,strange sights much sought, strange things much bought, and what else as fals out."

"To conclude," writes Breton, "I hold it the costly Purueyour of Excesse, and the after breeder of necessitie, the practice of Folly, and the Purgatory of Reason. Farewell."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Burgess on Mozart; Anxiety during Peaceful Times

The second movement of the Anthony Burgess text called "K. 550 (1788)" begins with a word pattern that imitates the melodic rhythms of the first phrase of the music:

"THE black day is coming. What black day is coming? The black day is coming for you, me and everyone. How soon now? Quite soon now. The shadows closing, shadows closing. I can see nothing."

Throughout the text Burgess juxtaposes images of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette with the music of Mozart's Symphony in G Minor, K.550. Here he imagines them on a rowboat on a quiet river in summertime. Even these relaxed and peaceful moments have powerful anxieties woven into them.

This tension is also reflected in the score. The unexpected chromatic line in the cellos and basses [0:04-0:07] and the chromatic melodic tail [0:25-0:27] are the first indications of disruptions and unexpected detours in this movement.

There are two-note figures that are separated from their own resolution by silences [0:21 and 0:23]. These figures take over the center of this section of this movement [1:22] and the first half of the form closes with an amazing chromatic progression from [2:31-2:45].

Burgess captures the spirit of the music itself:

"Black, bleak and bitter. The blue night’s arrived now. The blue night is with us. How urgent sighs the wind. So listen. I listen. The candles flicker, fleck the shadows. We eat. Some do not. We eat. So we eat."

Monday, November 29, 2010

K.550 (1788); Anthony Burgess superimposes "Mozart" and "Sex with the Sun King"

In "K.550 (1788)" by Anthony Burgess all four movements of the Mozart G minor symphony are used to mark attitudes or events from the relationship between Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette. I wrote an introductory blog entry about this here.

The first movement of the symphony harmonizes the story of the complex sexual consummation between the young lovers. Legend has it that they were unable to make love on the wedding night itself; and these things were of interest to the population and the paparazzi in a way that seems cruel but also very modern.

The Burgess "first movement" begins by focusing on Louis XIV. The opening section of the text is printed here.

Burgess imagines Louis pacing back and forth on the carpet as the music begins. He occasionally imitates melodic rhythms in the text as in "He himself, he himself, he himself trod," and often used musical developmental techniques and transformations in the sound of the text itself.

During the transition [0:34] Louis moves from his room to stand outside the door of Marie Antoinette. He is foiled: "Assert assert insert key. By foul magic wrong key. Not his key." Burgess riffs on the key to the door through the musical key of B-flat to which the symphony travels. B-flat major, key of the second theme group, will be the key of Antoinette.

The second theme group [2:04] is all about Antoinette. "SHE in room drinks off chocolate. She in bed still. Full sun catches elegant body." Alan Shockley remarked that the use of gender to describe sonata theme groups was a common practice. Here the second theme group describes only the female character.

Burgess steps outside his story to remark "Repeat all. To here." He has marked the repeat of the exposition [2:04] in his text. It is clever because the events he describes, the frustrations and contrasts in attitudes of the characters were repeated over weeks according to tradition.

The development section begins next [4:06]. The important thing to understand is that in Mozart's lifetime the word development was not in common use. At that time the section was most often called "Fantasia." Burgess sets the section as a mental fantasy of sex. And, because the music of this section is related only to themes from the first theme group--Burgess sets the text as "his" fantasy:

"Not repeat. He himself he himself he himself treads. As sun retreats (not satin sheets, not wool coverlet), as son of sun king dreams, late abed, of cowering. He himself he himself he him¬self sneers, transferred to violent darkness, asserts and hurts. He burns, he rips, claims loins. Lionlike claims he. Nay, see him now split, into he himself and he himself. Appalled, he himself asserting stasis (Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Xenophon set in busts’ frigidity — who says fragility? What voice in xenophone shrieks frangibility?), the parterre and shaved lawn, the semipiternal elms set in sempiternal order, the rents in good gold pieces (gold is always the key, but we shift now from key to key, stasis gone under, silk rent for the better fraction), sees he himself himself transformed as lust thrusts out trust. Untrussed he lustfully lustily thrusts. Hot iron slaked. She herself not there but transformed to palpable scream beneath. Teeth grind, grip. Faces at windows peer in horror, in horror fists at doors knock. All shed, what no shed shredded. Of loins lawfully possessed. Stone lioness on parterre parturiates. He himself observing he himself appalled. The sun sackcloth hides shamed face in willed darkness. He thrusts and floods. Flood floods nether caves.
Not so. Not yet. Not ever yet."

The recapitulation [5:24] is parallel to the exposition but modified to reflect changes made by Mozart.

The transition [5:56] no longer modulates to Antoinette's key but stays in the key of Louis: in G minor. "By bright magic right key. Yes, his key." Louis is in the room [6:37] and finally consummates the marriage; "Bare skin on bare skin slides, glides. Burn, lips. Loins conjoin."

The brief codetta [7:43] is set as another joining: now instead of he or she it is "they:"

"They two, now one, confront chill winds. They themselves, they themselves, they themselves tread bare boards, uncarpeted, unrugged, and the polished planks disclosed as wormgnawed, and beneath them a darkness not of the coupling pair made one but of the disorder which strikes the assertive chords of a pretense of order."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Anthony Burgess On Mozart; Celestial Watercooler Conversations

Anthony Burgess imagined a "celestial colloquy" in his book that celebrated the two-hundredth anniversary of Mozart's death in 1991. His book, "On Mozart," (which was also published under the title "Mozart and the Wolf Gang") opens amid activities and watercooler conversations in the afterworld.

Hector Berlioz, as a literary musician, you will perhaps appreciate the thing I have done. Here, where there is no worry about publishers, royalties, a scant readership, it is possible to practice the craft of fiction in a kind of musical purity. I have written something. Here it is -- in print. It is brief, as you see. It is an attempt to write fiction in the shape of Mozart's Fortieth Symphony -- the late one in G minor. Can one subdue human passion to musical form? Can one purge the emotions thereby? Read it. At your leisure. Or, if your bored, during the performance of this next scene or act. I would welcome your opinion."

It does not seem easy to read."

Meaning it is Stendhalian, Read it."

Marie-Henri Beyle (1783–1842), known by his pen-name Stendhal, is most familiar to musicians for his early biography of Rossini (Vie de Rossini, 1824); a thick book filled with colorful musical observations.

In this imagined conversation, Stendhal is riffing on the concept of "Evenings with the Orchestra," written by Berlioz. In "Evenings" Berlioz recounts tales and stories told among musicians when the are required to play boring music.

The celestial colloquy is itself interrupted by three acts of an opera about Mozart, performed in heaven to an assemble of spirits. Mendelssohn explains: "Our heavenly time is flexible, but I have to invoke clock time to achieve synchronicity. I mean that an opera is due to commence."

As flexible as heavenly time is, Berlioz does not read the "fiction in the shape of Mozart's Fortieth Symphony," until 49 pages later; or should we say 49 pages of Earthly book space later.

The passage comprises eleven pages (page 93-103) and is simply center-titled "K. 550 (1788)." Two spaces further down is a centered section marker: "First Movement." Each of the four movements from the symphony has a section marker.

The text is an attempt to superimpose scenes from the relationship of Louis XIV and and Marie Antoinette onto the music itself. The text and the design of the argument is deeply informed by elements of the structure of the music.

Two writers have begun to unravel these connections: Werner Wolf in "The musicalization of fiction: a study in the theory and history," from 1999, and more recently, "Music in the words: musical form and counterpoint in the twentieth century novel," by Alan Shockley.

Take a look at these two sources. Then we will chase this lovely writing around the sonic labyrinth to see if we can resonate in its juxtapositions.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Interrupting Mozart; on Bernstein and the night in Cambridge when the G minor symphony stopped

Mozart's G minor Symphony is about shocks and surprises, but there was a night in October 1973 when the unexpected caused Mozart to be temporarily silenced.

On the evening of the first lecture created by Bernstein for the Charles Eliot Norton series in 1973, a complete performance of the G minor symphony was to be filmed in performance at the Harvard Square Theater to cap the event.

Midway through the first movement the performance was stopped and the hall needed to be evacuated. Bernstein explains what happened in the WGBH studio the next morning where the lecture was recreated for videotape:

"During that wait," said Bernstein [0:42], "I must say I was sick at heart, and overcome by despair." But when the audience returned and the work resumed "my faith was restored...and doubled," said Bernstein [1:31].

Time Magazine reported on the incident on October 23, 1973:

"There was also an unscheduled theatrical moment in the middle of a filmed performance of Bernstein conducting Mozart's G-Minor Symphony: a bomb threat emptied the auditorium. 'I wouldn't have minded if the bomb-threat caller had only interrupted me,' said Bernstein after the audience had filed back. 'But to have interrupted Mozart was a sacrilege.' The mostly under-25 audience screamed, shrieked, applauded hysterically, and at concert's end, showered the stage with rose petals."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Calling the Young Schubert; a facsimile of the ad that changed Franz's life

More than two hundred years ago, on Friday, September 30, 1808, Franz Schubert and his family left home and walked to the Imperial and Royal Hall of Residence at 796 University Square in Vienna for a 3 o’clock appointment. An advertisement four months earlier in the Wiener Zeitung set events in motion. It established the time and place of the audition where both academic and musical “progress” would be examined. Students needed to be at least eleven years old, and in possession of a school certificate. The prize: a position as one of the ten choir-boys of the court chapel with unsurpassed formal education as a border at the City Seminary. Father Schubert, himself a schoolmaster, must have clipped this ad and kept it carefully tucked away, anxiously reviewing it several times while preparing Franz over the summer. A summer Franz spent studying, memorizing, practicing, waiting, and pondering what to wear. There is a complete facsimile of the Wiener Zeitung for Saturday May 28, 1808. On this particular page is the ad for vacant positions in the Stadkonvict that set the events in motion. Though often cited in excerpt, it is beautiful to see the full context of the ad knowing that this is the very text that the Schubert family read. The ad is the first complete article of the second column, marked as a "kundmachung;" something of a public service announcement. The translation of this kundmachung by Deutsch reads as follows: "Two boy choristers' appointments having to be newly filled in the I.& R. Court Chapel, those who wish to obtain these posts are to present themselves on 30th September, at 3 p.m., at the I.& R. Seminary, 796 Universitätsplatz, and to undergo an examination, as regards both the progress made by them in their studies and such knowledge as they may have already gained in music, and to bring their school certificates with them. Competitors must have completed their tenth year and be able to enter the first grammar class. Should the boys received at the Seminary distinguish themselves in morals and studies, they are to remain there, according to Imperial decree, after mutation of the voice; otherwise they are to leave after mutation of the voice. Vienna, 24th May 1808."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hot Pasquale; Met Live in HD became Omni-Opera. Don Pasquale Review

Pasquale has never been so cool--and this Pasquale had a ballet.

The Met Live in HD Pasquale gave us such fabulous backstage access that we were able to watch the details of every scene change. It was a Ballet Mécanique and absolutely seemed part of the plot.

It was amazing to learn that this run was the first time that James Levine has conducted Pasquale, and the shots of him conducting during the opening sinfonia were expressive. Camera angles that highlighted individual musicians from within the Met orchestra were also welcome; particularly in the tasteful angles shot within the orchestra during the scene 2 trumpet solo.

We first saw soprano Anna Netrebko backstage. She blew kisses to the Met Live in HD audience as the camera panned past her while she reclined on a fainting couch. It was just before her Act One aria.

The scrim rose and Netrebko began her introduction in G major reading from a book. Norina's cavatina gave Netrebko room for devilishness and established that she could still sizzle scales. She was charming and witty, as always, and made impeccable musicianship fun.

John Del Carlo sang a convincing Pasquale. Known particularly for his work in comic roles by Rossini, he was ever-entertaining. His ability to articulate lightening fast patter boggles the mind. The act three patter duet with Mariusz Kwiecien came across with perfectly coordinated consonants--clean and articulate. To our delight it was encored before the scene change.

Met regular Kwiecien was the common denominator as Dr. Malatesta. He was the master of plot machinery and had strong chemistry with everyone. His powerful, rich voice added significantly to ensembles and made Maletesta's music dance.

Lyric tenor Matthew Polenzani brought richness to the role of Ernesto. He projected a sense of sadness and isolation that felt genuine as he delivered effortless power in his act two aria "Cercherò lontana terra."

The live in HD audience became omni-opera when we were given backstage access to the serenade ensemble that performed Ernesto's act III serenade. A live feed of Levine conducting was projected onto a monitor where a cover conductor led the guitars, percussion and chorus that supported Polenzani. Polenzani then came onstage for the da capo of his aria. This brightened the sound and moved the action forward as Netrebko appeared on the balcony.

Polenzani and Netrebko balanced well in their Notturno duet "Tornami a dir che m'ami." Though this duet between lovers appears late in the opera, Polenzani and Netrebko had an onstage chemistry that kicked in long before this moment and they made this duet seem a continuation rather than a new starting point.

In the end, Pasquale gave his blessing to the wedding of Norina and Ernesto. The moral was simple: “Any man has lost his senses who would marry when he is old.”

This experience was light, colorful, and full of blazing musicianship. The interviews, backstage access, and clever camera angles have created Omni-opera.

Hail mighty Live in HD! Hail, Hail, Hail!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bach and a Remembrance of Miracles

Bach felt comfortable with miracles.

For the Christmas season of 1723, Bach wrote a new cantata for each one of the three days that Christmas was celebrated in Leipzig at that time. This creativity also brought with it the Magnificat, composed for the Vespers service on December 25.

The text itself is remembrance of miracles; a soul that magnified, a spirit that rejoiced. A standard compositional genre during Bach's lifetime, the Magnificat text consisted of a musical setting of the Canticle of the Blessed Virgin (from the Latin Vulgate translation of St. Luke i, Verses 46-55).

Bach magnified also; composing an individual movement for each line of the text. Sometimes lines are expressed by using collisions between musical styles, as for example, the explosive and shocking choral conclusion to the third sentence ending in “omnes generationes,” where the instantaneously kaleidoscopic sound paints the immensity of transience.

Four tropes were added to the original text, each set in hymn style (Vom Himmel hoch, Freut euch und jubilieret, Gloria in excelsis, and Virga Jesse floruit). Spitta conjectures that these tropes were symbolic images of rocking the child, Albert Schweitzer as viewed them as “music accompanying the representation of the scene in the manger at Bethlehem.”

The often intimate and delicate solos, duets and trios provide a sense of human measure: our connection to individuals in compassion, gentleness, strength and dance-like joy. Listen to Christine Schäfer singing the Quia respexit conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Her performance is consolation, compassion and warmth in sound.

Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae; (he has considered my humble state;)
ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent (for look--now [they] will say that I am blessed)

These delicate solo sections are built between choral movements like structural pillars that mark using complex, elaborate and joyous figuration. The two concluding choral sections contrast an older musical style where instruments double the voice with a newer style in the concluding Gloria, where instruments play independent parts. In fact, after the tripartite invocations to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Gloria returns to the music of the opening movement to set the text, “as it was in the beginning.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

Two Free Paper Pianos; The perfect gift for the musician who has everything

Archie McPhee has a legendary collection of strange, eccentric, and wtf gifts. Their slogan: "slightly less disappointing than other companies."

Well nothing disappointing about their paper pianos. They are free, need no tuning, and with a color printer and a little assembly they are sure to please. There is a page of "Insert Tab D into Slot D"--type can handle that, right?

For your amusement consider: The Paper Clavichord or The Paper Grand.

The paper grand even has a desk with the score of the Pathétique sonata opened up and ready to play.

Once you have these beauties assembled you may feel the need to hire the action figures who play these paper instruments. Once again--Archie McPhee comes to the rescue with action figures of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and yes, Wagner.

The Wagner action figure comes with its own conducting baton, so no need to worry about that...

Spend some time looking through the rest of their site. Like me you have at least one person in your life who really needs some of this stuff.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Nearer to Mozart with Brahms in 1891

In a chapter from his biography of Mozart called "Fearful Symmetries," Maynard Solomon meditates on the peculiar qualities of beauty in the Mozart style. He considers the centennial of Mozart's death in the year 1891, and imagines the challenge faced by Brahms: "how to pay homage to Mozart without surrendering one's own individuality."

The Brahms solution was encoded in the Brahms Clarinet Quintet; an ensemble which entered the public consciousness with the Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581.

Listen with closest possible attention to the opening four notes of the Mozart Quintet. The tune moves down through a triad by skip then step to land on the first scale degree. This tone is harmonized with the relative minor; which delays the arrival of the expected tonic harmony until the chord that introduces the solo clarinet in the seventh measure.

The second movement of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet echos the intervals of the first three notes of the Mozart but then "block[s] the theme, refusing to allow it to continue, let allow to come to rest," observed Solomon.

[Thomas Friedli & Quartet Sine Nomine]

The restlessness is also rhythmic, with deep-scale syncopation and patterns with two-against-three creating gentle frictions. "In the end Brahms knew," wrote Solomon, "we cannot reach Mozart, we can only hope to come nearer to him."

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Vocal Wisdom from Elizabeth Parcells (1951-2005); a useful website to bookmark

I want to draw your attention to a website that is both a useful resource and a fitting memorial for a musician.

Elizabeth Parcells (1951-2005) was described by Richard Dyer in her obituary in the Boston Globe as "a spunky coloratura soprano who could turn daredevil cartwheels on the stages of opera houses to match the dizzying virtuosity of her singing."

Her brother Charles helped to create a website that would both document her singing career and also be a resource for young singers.

In an email to me he said that he "ripped and edited many open reel tapes and worked on the web site, with support from Elizabeth, during the last 6 months of her life, then took another 6 months to finish up with necessary assistance from several opera gurus on message boards who could give me exact names of pieces and help with spelling, etc."

Charles "wanted to preserve her artistic legacy for the family. She wanted to encourage young singers." Both goals are met and exceeded in this lovely website.

The application for this website extends beyond vocal pedagogy. It is of use to anyone learning this repertoire. For those of us who are not singers there is nothing more helpful in gaining insight into vocal repertoire than thoughtful markings and reflections on the process of performance from a singers vantage point.

As one peruses the site, one discovers recordings of repertoire that is diverse in style and idiom. There are often comments, IPA written meticulously in Elizabeth;s hand, and other pedagogical pieces of "vocal wisdom" running the gambit from advice about singing with an orchestra to daily vocal exercises.

The site is saturated with interviews, videotapes, and pictures from all stages of her career. As one spends time wandering the site, Elizabeth's personality comes sharply into focus.

This was one of the first sites, if not the first, to animate scores so that one line of a score at a time appears in the window as one hears the music itself. Charles made these animations. While this has become a common idiom in YouTube, it is not common to use a score with markings. These markings, made by Elizabeth for her own use, are actualized in the performances, and show an organized and logical mind at work.

I remain quite drawn to these markings. They reveal insights and personality.

In an interview with Jonathan Swift on "Time Out for Opera," she describes the bel canto style. Elizabeth refers to the famous book of maxims by Giovanni Battista Lamperti called "Vocal Wisdom." This website is a testament to vocal wisdom and artistry.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Elizabeth Parcells and Shéhérazade by Ravel

Tonight I am thinking about the opening movement of Shéhérazade by Ravel. It is music that longs for the exotic, from a time when the exotic was exotic, and from an age that needed escape.

This video is a performance by soprano Elizabeth Parcells (1951-2005), and she also created this helpful animation. Her website is a very powerful testament to her life, her creativity, and to her brave battle with colorectal cancer.

I was drawn immediately to her voice which seemed able to navigate this notoriously low setting. I was also drawn to the warm and homespun markings in the score...simple, strong, and very clear.

After the double reed invocation the singer voices the names of the song three times: "Asie." In a recitative-like setting [0:33] the text take us into the forest; into the world of fantasy told to us in "songs from the nursery."

The music then becomes a barcarole [1:00] in E-flat minor and a short-long fanfare that will echo throughout the movement is first articulated.

Je voudrais m'en aller avec la goëlette (I wish to go away with the boat)
Qui se berce ce soir dans le port (Cradled this evening in the port)
Mystérieuse et solitaire (Mysterious and solitary)

"Voiles violettes" (violet sails) are set against a golden sky are in B-major at [1:47]. And at [2:07] we reach an opposition with the introduction of A major, a tritone away from E-flat minor which was the last tonality in which we heard the words, "Je voudrais m'en aller" (I wish to go away). This new escape is toward an "isle of flowers," and is set as a ringing texture filled with octaves and harp glissandi.

The Persian fantasy is next [2:27]. It is cast in a b-minor world of cymbals and tremolos, and later some juicy augmented seconds scored for oboe.

The first half of this movement begins to cadence with an intimate setting set with solo violin in counterpoint with the voice at [3:08], and a relaxed and expansive texture at [3:37] with closes on A major, this time not seeming like a counterpole to E-flat but more a a dominant preparation fro the next section of the music.

This second half of the song feels more like an alternation of meditative passages [4:23] and later at [6:03] with fantasy passages that invoke China [5:39], and later the world of 1001 nights [6:54].

The movement culminates in a glorious high B-flat [7:34].

E-flat minor returns [7:39] with the fanfare that has led us through these fantasies. After a lengthy interlude, the voice returns [8:44] in a whispery quiet to close the work. The end of this video is not quite the end of the song...the last minute of so is mistakenly attached to part two of the video on YouTube.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Thinking November with Tchaikovsky

The Russian magazine "Nouvellist" commissioned Tchaikovsky to write twelve short piano pieces inspired by the each of the twelve months. The corresponding music appeared in each publication in 1876. Collected in publication later the work became "The Seasons," Op. 37a.

The editor chose subtitles that set the mood for each month. November was inspired by images of carriage rides. It is called Troika, which was a distinctive carraige drawn by drawn by three horses that were harnessed side-by-side. An additional epigraph from Nikolay Nekrasov adds a sense of the cautionary:

In your loneliness do not look at the road,
and do not rush out after the troika.
Suppress at once and forever the fear of longing in your heart.

Lev Oborin (1907-1974) was the winner of the inaugural International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition in 1927. He studied with Busoni, and is known to most music lovers for his collaborations with violinist David Oistrakh.

This is the cold war November. One is reminded at [0:17] and again in the strange symmetry of forced naturalness at [2:34]. One imagines the finale of Shostakovich's fifth symphony--a sense of forced consensus, forced enjoyment: "Suppress at once and forever the fear of longing in your heart."

This performance sings the pentatonic folksiness of the opening tune, and develops balanced discourse into the texture during the counterstatement at [0:29]. The celebratory restatement at [0:50] is where the sense of sadness woven into into this occasion seems most discordant with the music itself.

"It is now November," wrote English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626), "and according to the prouerbe, Let the Thresher take his flayle, and the ship no longer sail: for the high winds and the rough seas will try the ribs of the shippe, and the hearts of the sailors."

His entry, from "The Twelve Moneths," talks of the "countrey people" coming to market, and of the onset of the cold. "Schollers before breakfast haue a cold stomacke to their bookes...the Winds now are cold, and the Ayre chill, and the poore die through want of Charitie. In summe, with a conceit of the chilling cold of it, I thus conclude in it: I hold it the discomfort of Nature, and Reasons patience. Farewell."

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 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:

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?”


“. . . 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

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

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

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."


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 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.
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