Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Somewhere in (a different) Time; Mahler 9 as Farewell

The 18th variation (andante cantabile) of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini has was so carefully integrated into the texture of the 1980 movie "Somewhere in Time" (starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour) that it may come as a surprise that the music of Rachmaninoff does not appear in the book that inspired the movie. Instead it is Mahler's ninth symphony.

In 1975 Richard Matheson (b.1926) wrote a novel called "Bid Time Return." The title is a reference to Richard II "O, call back yesterday, bid time return," and was changed to "Somewhere in Time" in all editions subsequent to the movie. Matheson wrote more than a dozen episodes of "The Twilight Zone," and also wrote "The Enemy Within" for the first Star Trek series. He is a prolific writer of both novels and short stories.

On Sunday, November 14, 1971 Richard Collier was escaping from something unnamed in his dark blue Galaxie. He had no plans, no destination: "heads north, tails south." He carried two bags. One with clothes. "In the other suitcase, my phonograph, headphones, and ten Mahler symphonies." Collier is likable.

As in the movie Collier is drawn to a photograph of Elise McKenna. He begins to pursue her:

"I'm listening to Mahler's Ninth now: performed by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic. I agree with Alban Berg. He is quoted on the record jacket as saying (when he read the manuscript) that it was 'the most heavenly thing Mahler wrote.' And Walter wrote, 'The symphony is inspired by an intense spiritual agitation; the sense of departure." Of this first movement, he wrote it 'floats in an atmosphere of transfiguration.'"

Walter premiered the ninth symphony and worked closely with Mahler. The 1961 stereo recording by Walter is still around on LP.

By Wednesday the 17th Collier was studying Priestly's "Man and Time," and attempting to "make use of the nontemporal part of his mind." Still, Collier's attempts to enter 1896 fail:

"Another solution occurs to me! [...]Since the sound of my voice distracts, let me eliminate that sound. I'll write instructions to my subconscious--twenty-five, fifty, a hundred times each. As I do this, I'll listen to Mahler's Ninth Symphony on my headphones, let it be my candle flame, my swinging pendant as I send written instructions to my subconscious that today in November 19, 1896."

"An amendment. I will listen only to the final movement of the symphony. The movement in which, wrote Bruno Walter, 'Mahler peacefully bids farewell to the world." I will also use it to bid farewell to this world--of 1971."

Essayist Lewis Thomas (1913-1993) wrote "Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony," in which he chronicled how the sense of farewell inspired by Mahler nine had become magnified by fears we came to understand during the cold war:

"I cannot listen to Mahler's Ninth Symphony," wrote Thomas, "with anything like the old melancholy mixed with the high pleasure I used to take from this music. There was a time, not long ago, when what I heard, especially in the final movement, was an open acknowledgement of death and at the same time a quiet celebration of the tranquility connected to the process. I took this music as a metaphor for reassurance, confirming my own strong hunch that the dying of every living creature, the most natural of all experiences, has to be a peaceful experience. I rely on nature. The long passages on all the strings at the end, as close as music can come to expressing silence itself, I used to hear as Mahler's idea of leave-taking at its best. But always, I have heard this music as a solitary, private listener, thinking about death."

"Now all that has changed," wrote Thomas, "I cannot think that way anymore. Not while those things are still in place, aimed everywhere, ready for launching." Thomas begins to hear the work as a farewell to all life.

The notion of the ninth symphony as a form of farewell comes directly from Bruno Walter and was developed and perfected by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein described the final movement as a form of "church-music." He described parts of it as being "Eastern" and "like a form of meditation." Later in the work he said “it is as though [Mahler] is trying on for size...disembodiment." He seeks "to be part of the universe...to be molecular.” Continuing to alternate and push these two final extremes Mahler pressed this movement into a thirty-minute epic. Until “finally at the end of the movement,” observes Bernstein, “there is nothing but a series of spider-web strands.” This is Bernstein at his most convincing.

The Walter/Bernstein view of farewell is predicated on the notion that Mahler's tenth symphony would never exist; that the work as left at the time of Mahler's death was too fragmentary to be reassembled. Reassembled it has become, and increasingly it has entered the repertoire. As it has done so, Mahler's tenth symphony many, like Simon Rattle, have come to understand the ninth symphony differently: it is often viewed as being life affirming.

I last wrote about Mahler's ninth symphony in a preview article for the Hartford Courant. There I wrote:

"The symphonic repertoire is vast and deep. There are works that seek to entertain, to reveal bewildering virtuosity; there are works that dance with regret, and others in aerobic celebration. There are works that laugh and others that are philosophical puzzles in sound. But the repertoire has only one Mahler nine—-because it seeks to accomplish all of these things. No other work in the orchestral literature has the mystique of Mahler’s ninth symphony."

Monday, June 28, 2010

Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" and Somewhere in Time

The 1980 movie "Somewhere in Time" is worth another look. It is about chasing ghosts and mirages with a willingness to pursue that becomes reckless.

In the film the D-flat major andante cantabile from Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" becomes a symbol of unsponsored recognition.

Trying to kill the 40 minutes before the dinging hall opens, Richard Collier (Reeve) sees a room in his hotel called "Hall of History." He walks into the room which is filled with reds from floor to ceiling and begins to move around the objects like a casual tourist.

In the actual movie the scene is quite haunting. Reeve transitions from casual interest and seems pulled by the portrait behind him. The music in the film is almost inaudible as Reeve turns to view the portrait, becoming audible with the brittle colors of a distant recording. The andante cantabile is heard midway through the piano statement so that the theme itself is not revealed until played by the orchestra. The orchestral statement is full of presence and color as the distant recording is replaced by the regular soundtrack.

Observe how the character played by Jane Seymour becomes visible by reflection in the center row, left column windowpane. She is wearing a ghostly white gown. Soon after Collier moves out of frame he becomes visible as a reflection. The door is a symbolic portal and the gridwork mullions create an impression of logic and measure.

The andante cantabile is well suited for this world of reflection. This variation was created by inverting the contour of the Paganini theme upon which the work is based: every musical interval was reflected in the opposite direction.

The theme in its original form can be heard at timing [0:30] in this recording played by Rachmaninoff himself:

Back to the clip from the movie: listen to the transition at [2:38]. The magic disappears instantly with the edit to a cover version of music from the soundtrack. Not just any music works to convey the message. It is also of interest that even though the overlay of music in this montage differs significantly from actual film, that the andante cantabile section works anyway. The relationship between symbols from the movie and the Rachmaninoff is more powerful than might appear.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Norman Lebrecht, Mahler and Big-Hearted Charlie

In an article that appeared yesterday in the Telegraph, Norman Lebrecht wrote of how Gareth Davies, principal flute of the LSO, found catharsis during a performance of Mahler's tenth symphony. “Why Mahler?” is both the question that Lebrecht asks in the article and the title of his new book published by Faber & Faber.

Lebrecht described Davies on the edge of despair. Then, in the finale of Mahler 10, Davies said: “There was a low thud of a drum...I closed my eyes and just played this tune. At that moment, everything came flooding back. Something connected. The music of Mahler had flicked a switch somewhere in my brain. I knew I could carry on.”

That gorgeous flute solo, in a performance by the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt, can be heard rising from almost nothing during the opening minute and twenty seconds of this excerpt from YouTube:

What cannot be heard is the "low thud of a drum." This is because the duration of a typical performance of the finale of Mahler 10 is about 24 minutes, and since YouTube allows only 10 minutes per segment, the host decided to split the track into two segments and start about four minutes in--seconds before the flute solo---and to cut the opening music. Technology giveth; technology taketh away.

But that was no ordinary thud.

The drums that are heard are echos of the "thud" that closes the fourth movement and they are essential to the structural and narrative context. Alma Mahler's "Memories and Letters" detailed an occurrence in 1908 when a funeral procession stopped below the window of the Mahler apartment on Central Park West:

"Hearing a confused noise, we leaned out the window and saw a long procession...alongside Central Park. It was the funeral procession of a fireman about whose heroic death we had read about in the newspaper. [...] There was a brief pause, then a stroke on a muffled drum, then dead silence. [...] [Mahler] too was leaning out, and tears were streaming down his face. That brief drum stroke impressed him so deeply that he used it in his tenth symphony."

The funeral procession was for Charles W. Kruger. Kruger was known to his colleagues as "Big-Hearted Charlie." He had thirty-six years of service before leading his men into a sub-cellar on 215 Canal Street.

The original Times story that the Mahler's read is available here.

The article includes a vivid description of the events. Kruger had "plunged into a stone cellar filled with eight feet of water, with slimy walls, and no ladder or steps to the floor above." Andy and several other guys fought to get a grip on him and pull him out to no avail. "I'm going, boys," whispered Kruger who "splashed back into the pit and was gone."

The original Times story about the funeral procession that stopped in front of the Mahler house, which includes references to the music that was played during the funeral service, is available here.

Lebrecht meditates on the significance of Mahler's music for the 21st century: "Once we grasp the possibility of multiple meanings," he writes, "[Mahler's] music combines intellectual challenge with emotional catharsis."

These multiple meanings include a sound captured during the funeral procession for Big-Hearted Charlie. The sound was the gateway for a flute solo by Gareth Davies.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mahler in Hartford

I just read the article from the Hartford Courant written on February 17, 1911 that describes the performance by Gustav Mahler and the "Philharmonic Society of New York" in Hartford on February 16 at the Parsons Theater. The Parsons Theater was located on 66 Prospect Street.

Mahler "fully demonstrated, to the music-lovers there assembled, his remarkable abilities." The first work was an arrangement by Mahler of a "suite for orchestra" from the second and third Bach Suites. Mahler played continuo on piano "so modified in tone as to approximate the effect of the harpsichord."

Also on the program was the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony, Weber's Invitation to the Dance, and Les préludes by Liszt.

The program was well received. At one point the applause was "so insistent" that "the members of the orchestra were called on to rise to share it with their leader--and they, as well as he, fully merited the audience's appreciation."

The anonymous reviewer complained that the "audience was not as large as it should have been, by any means." At the end of the review a fateful statement: "If [Mahler] ever comes here again at the head of an orchestra he should be welcomed by an audience as large as the theater will accommodate."

Mahler and the Philharmonic had come from a performance in Springfield MA on the 15th, and would perform only twice more in New York--on the 19th and the 21st, before Mahler's health required him to return to Vienna. He died there on May 18.

There is a fantastic searchable database that has been added to the New York Philharmonic website. If one enters a search on "Mahler, Gustav" under the "Search by Artist" tab one can look through 67 programs that he conducted, both at home in New York and on tour. Interestingly the Hartford performance is not listed yet in this database. One can also see that Mahler performed 160 different works, a few as many as twenty-one different times.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Unbearable Lightness of Netrebko and Alagna

The death scene from Gounod's Roméo and Juliette in the 2007 Met production presented an idealized view of death in the 19th century.

In this operatic death scene there is a social, even sexual, feel so important that Gounod altered the timing of events in Shakespeare--so that Juliette awakens before Roméo has even felt the affects of poison--so that the two lovers can share death simultaneously.

The music attracts toward E-flat major as Juliette awakens, symbol of resurrection, from a sleep perceived as death. Their duet speaks of escape, of fleeing, of running without goal toward happiness: it is the 19th century voicing of the Springsteen song "Born to Run."

The music turns as the poison sets in on Roméo and as Juliette discovers that he will die. We settle on G major. It is here that Roméo expresses the idea that their love will transcend death. "Blessed by the angels, sings Alagna, "it is absorbed in the infinite as a flood of light."

There is an episode of reminiscence, powerful because it relates to the sexual experience of the lovers on their wedding night--the music that opens Act IV. During that scene there is debate as to whether the bird that they hear is the lark (herald of the morn) or the nightingale (confidant of love). Their hope was that the sound was the nightingale (who sings only at night), which would mean that they still had time together. It was the lark. Now in death Roméo inverts the experience: the night he is about to enter is death, and the nightingale that he imagines is a symbol that time has run out.

The music and melody return from Act IV.

In the "Unbearable Lightness of Being," Milan Kundera writes about the way "human lives are composed:"

"They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven's music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life...Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress." (p.52)

The lark and nightingale in Gounod are able to become part of a composition, literally, through the magic of opera.

Later in the novel Kundera compares the two sets of primary lovers in his novel. "While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its openings bars, they can go about writing it together and exchange motifs, but if they meet when they are older, their musical compositions are more of less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them." (p.88-89)

The sense of unison in Gounod is simultaneity of youth, sexuality, and a love that transcends mortality.

The right singers in the right production can make the unfolding of this Kunderian "musical composition" strangely inevitable and natural.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Met Live in HD; Gounod's Roméo and Juliette

Gounod's Roméo and Juliette with Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna, filmed on December 15, 2007 has managed to retain a strong sense of currency.

In a stunning moment at the opening of act IV, Roméo and Juliette appear on their wedding bed floating in the air amid stars. In this production Guy Joosten created an astronomical setting that made the destiny of the "star-crossed lovers" seem part of a deeply ordered cosmic patterning rather than impulsive teenage behavior.

The center of the set contained a huge rotating astronomical clock with signs engraved onto the outer edge. A circular insert of the clock rotated on a horizontal axis to create a high edge sloping away from the audience. Background images of galaxies, a hemispheric view of Venus, and eclipses appeared were projected as background images. The other significant prop was a curved stairway with lines connecting the front and back of each stair on a diagonal--a sundial stairway.

Sometimes it felt like the action was taking place on the deck of the Starship Enterprise--even the house safety lights visible behind conductor Plácido Domingo during the orchestral introduction to Act II now looked like stars.

The movie rebroadcast was given without intermissions, but between acts we given a glimpse of the complex production life that takes place backstage. These breaks seemed in continual motion, as though we were being pulled through an amusement park on tracks. It was an effective way to break tension.

Our backstage tour also felt voyeuristic. We got to see Netrebko in preparation as she adjusted the nightgown in which she appeared on the balcony. It was an unexpected anticipation of how Romeo must feel as he sits undetected in Juliette's garden and sees a light.

Juliette's part in this opera is famous for its transformation from coloratura in Act I into a fully dramatic role by the end of the opera. Netrebko transitioned the role with great delicacy, finding opportunities express charm within the most dramatic moments. Her poison aria is full throated, dark sound.

Focus in particular on the last thirty seconds. This final phrase needs to climb steadily in intensity over long arcs of melody. She begins the phrase facing away from the audience, which darkens the sound. She turns just in time to raze us with that high "C." Observe the devilish smile as she rebuilds the closing line "Roméo, I drink to you!" All Juliette. Netrebko is a force of nature.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hopelessly Romantic Summer Music

Myrtle Reed wrote her first book in 1899 called "Love Letters of a Musician." In it a musician writes letters to a woman he loves. Because he is too shy to mail the letters to her he drops them into a trunk at the foot of his bed that he imagines to be a mailbox. She finds them but I won't tell you how. Be careful of excessive romance.

Each letter is prefaced with a musical quotation that sets the mood of the narrative. The way one reads them is influenced by the mood and tempo of the music. Reed was seeking an experience that wasn't readily possible in 1899. She was seeking embedded videos and a blog.

This Letter was called "The River of Rest," and it was prefaced by the Grieg Berceuse Op. 38 No. 1 which she called "Slumber Song:"

"Summer has stolen upon us with her soft, dreamy wings, and the world is singing her praises. With a ripple of leaves and a tinkle of streams, the full earth rolls in a stately march, from sun to shadow and back to sun again.

There is a drowsy murmur of bells to-night, and looking across the fields, I can see the sheep going home. I have lulled myself to sleep many a time, fancying I saw them going one by one over the hill, and to-night, in the violet shadow, I see a picture so like that of my dreams that my eyelids droop even at the memory of it.

He was a brave man who first closed his eyes in sleep, but what a reward was his!

Within the borders of Slumberland lies the Country of Dreams, beyond the night and far, far past the day. The breath of a thousand springs is in the air and shadowy wings sweep over the fields, aflame with blossoms that only dreamers know.

There is a river winding through that country—-they call it the River of Rest. The still, wide waters are cool and clear, and there is no room for disappointment on that lily-lined shore.

The sky is always blue there, and there is no heartache in my dream. You put your hand in mine and we go on together, through meadows brave with bloom.

The dead, lost violets of my happy days with you blossom afresh in those fair plains, and I watch the light in your eyes, forgetting he cruel gulf of years that must ever lie between your heart and mine.

Dear Lady, those fields are sweet with summer now, and you go on, without knowing how I love you. But it is only a step to the land where my hungry lips can speak to you and my empty hands grasp yours, and when I wake, I can only pray that I may dream again.

 The hill over which the sheep have passed is lost in the shadow now, but I can hear the far-off tinkle which means “follow.” Some mystic bell is calling me to that dear land where I always find you, and I shall obey, though I must pass through dark to reach it.

On the stately, majestic river there is a shallop moored among the lilies for me, and I shall find you there, with love on your face and the gold of sunset lying on your hair. We shall sail down the river together, dear Heart, and you will be a willing guest.

In fancy I can see you now, as you reach over the side of the boat and trail your fingers in the water, half expecting to find them stained crimson with the reflected clouds. Then you will look up at me, smiling, and point toward the west, where, upraised on a slender pillar of purple cloud, is the faint, exquisite lamp of a star."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

An Orchestral Scream; Shostakovich on TV

"The Great Citizen" was a film was made in 1939 that teams with the anxieties and tensions of a world on the edge of war. This was the first "made for television" movie produced in Soviet Russia and it was scored by Shostakovich.

The main character of this movie was based on Sergei Kirov. Kirov was assassinated only four years before the film was made in circumstances that most believed were conspiratorial. Stalin mourned in public and even helped carry the coffin, but he directly benefited from, and was most likely behind, the murder.

In the final segment of the film, which comprises the last ten minutes of the movie, we meet the Kirov character moving through a public building. He is in a hurry and checks his watch, but he is a man of the people and knows how to charm. His second interaction addresses the concerns of a woman. He pulls her away from the direction he is headed and finds a personalized solution that seems to immediately resolve her concerns.

A whistle blows.

He meets one final friend, who has an informal, clown-like look even though he wears a suit. He offers this friend a cigarette and gives him matches. The friend cannot produce a flame. Kirov walks away laughing, looking back twice:

There is no sound as the door closes; we heard the sound of the door like a shot in our minds. The scream is orchestrated. The opening phrase of the funeral march is a quotation from "Vi zhertvoyu pali (You fell as a victim)" which is a tune of national significance in Russia. Listen to a classic recording of this tune here.

Shostakovich begins to tear away from quotation after the first phrase and sets an apotheosis that resonates with the accumulated sense of processional and personal reaction in the film.

At timing [5:12] Kirov's grandmother is lead to the coffin. The music shifts back toward "Vi zhertvoyu pali," and when the tune reappears it is scored for solo bassoon. This wonderful passage creates a memorable moment in both sound and image.

After a lengthy eulogy the cue for the movie closing begins with an awkward splice just after [9:25]. The final cadence is a climactic sound that is sustained while the portrait of the smiling Kirov fades.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Late nIght thoughts on Mendelssohn's Overture to Midsummer Night's Dream

"At the first sound of the mysterious magic chords with which the overture begins," wrote Ernest LaPrade in his 1925 book Alice in Orchestralia, "a spell seemed to fall upon the vast auditorium."

LaPrade (1889-1969), was concert master for Walter Damrosch during the Music Appreciation Hour series and also conducted the “Orchestra of the Nation.” He was trying to capture the impact as young Alice hears an orchestra for the first time and selected the Overture from Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for "The Midsummer Night's Dream."

The Overture still casts a spell. Part of the magic derives from a strategy of tonal shades involving the same two keys used by Vivaldi in the Spring concerto, which I wrote about yesterday. The Mendelssohn introduction opens in E major with a bright G# voiced as the highest pitch. The first chord is scored for two flutes only and as each successive chord is played the texture thickens as additional instruments are added.

It is important to hear that the opening chord has only two pitches: E and G-sharp. There is no B. This detail may seem incidental, but it was part of a compositional strategy that is manifest later in the work.

Much later in the work Mendelssohn finds himself in C-sharp minor during the retransition at timing [5:36]. Here he writes a haunted tune and allows the final C-sharp to extend, asking it to be held underneath the first chord played by the two flutes, who play the E and G-sharp exactly as they did in the introduction.

Because the opening chord never contained a B this trick works: Mendelssohn can layer the E and G-sharp of the flutes over the C# pedal in the strings, forming a C-sharp minor triad. He then stops the C-sharp and continues along in E major, with the identical progression from the introduction, as if a modulation had taken place. In an overture filled with cleverness and charisma it is easy to overlook details like this one.

The unexpectedness of the opening chord of the work figured in an anecdote from Boston on page 29 of the Joseph Horowitz book "Classical Music in America." Horowitz relates a story told by Thomas Ryan, a clarinetist in the Boston Academy Orchestra in the early 1840s. The orchestra was one-half amateur and one-half professional and was taking on this work at a time when it would still have been "new music."

The conductor George James Webb "began by telling us that he had no score; so he stood up alongside of the first-violin desk and prepared to conduct. Rapping on the desk he gave the signal to begin; out piped two flutes,--nothing else. He rapped again, implying that the players had not been ready to begin, then he said, 'We will try again.' He gave the signal--and out piped the two flutes. That caused a little twitter of surprise, and we all looked quizzically at each other. Mr. Webb, however, dutifully gave the signal for the next 'hold' or chord, when two clarinets joined the two flutes! More surprise. At the third hold the fagotti and horns were added, and at the fourth hold the entire woodwind section, all sounding most distressingly out of tune.[...]At the ends of the violin passage, the [winds] again held a very dissonant chord for two measures, which was so abominably out of tune that it was really as if each man played any note he pleased; and it was so irresistibly funny that again everybody burst out laughing...That last dissonant chord ended the first rehearsal of the Midsummer Night's Dream overture. We never tried it again."

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Vivaldi's Dog

The opening of the Vivaldi "Spring" concerto is ever present; elemental in its appeal. But this opening passage can be a distraction that overpowers a concerto with complexity and flavor beyond the famous ritornello.

Tonight I am thinking about the music in C-sharp minor that appears within this concerto in E major. The brightness of E major in the opening ritornello is the optimism of the season, it is also the key of the "danza pastorale" that closes this concerto. Both passages voice the rich third of the E major triad as a melodic focal point. By way of contrast, the central largo movement is written in C-sharp minor.

Each of the concertos of the "Four Seasons" is prefaced by a poem that many scholars believe was written by Vivaldi himself. The lines of the poem are also inscribed into the score, along with other instructions apart from normal indications. The "Seasons" are not simply programmatic; they are narrative.

The poem that describes the second movement is as follows:

"E quindi sul fiorito ameno prato (Where the green meadow flowers all around)
Al caro mormorio di fronde e piante (amid the soft whisperings of leaves and plants,)
Dorme 'l Caprar col fido can' à lato." (the goat-herd sleeps next to his faithful dog.)

This lyrical portrait is like video in sound itself. The "soft whisperings" are described by the motion of the two violin parts, and Vivaldi marks the solo part as the “Il capraro che dorme” [the goat-herder that sleeps]. It is the viola part that makes me smile. In units of two pitches each, this underlying motive is the faithful animal at the goat-herders feet, marked by Vivaldi: “Il cane che grida” [the growl of the dog]. He also marked the part to be played "always very loud" (Sempre molto forte), which is an indication that too many recordings moderate.

Throughout this movement there is a gorgeous floating tune, an alluring background of shifting figures, and a barking dog.

E major and C-sharp minor share the pitches E and G-sharp. The two keys, which also share the same key signatures, build from one another and understand one another like twins raised apart.

C-sharp minor appears in the storm interlude of the first movement and is used in the finale also. In both outer movements the ritornello appears in C# minor. This is no ordinary spring: it is the springtime of the goat-footed balloon man made famous by e. e. cummings who "whistles far and wee."

As the balloon man whistles a dog barks persistently, calling our attention to C-sharp minor.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Béla Bartók through Agatha Fassett

“I'd like to play something for you if you'll tell me what you want to hear.”

Overwhelmed by a violent attack of my old diffidence, I sank into one of the chairs and managed to say, “Oh, anything—-thank you—-anything at all. Whatever you please.”

But Bartók still waited, and neither moved nor spoke. Finally Ditta broke the long silence. “Something of Bartók, perhaps?” she murmured, trying to help me out.

“Oh, yes, please! By all means!” I said quickly.

“But exactly what?” Bartók insisted, resting his hands on the keys as he waited for an answer. “Give me your choice.”

There was another silence, and I realized that I was not going to be spared the ordeal of deciding.

“Allegro barbaro.” I said the first thing that came into my mind.

“Why Allegro barbaro?” He looked at me sternly, leaving no doubt that mine was a particularly unfortunate request. “Do you think it's such an outstanding composition?”

“Why, of course.”

“You do?” he asked......”
Agatha Fassett’s book on Bartók, from which this passage is drawn, is a wonderful account of his personality, and a source of many colorful anecdotes. It allows us one angle toward knowing what he was like as a person. the book provides a context for us to humanize the distinctions that articulated his musical style.

Fassett helped Béla and his wife Ditta find a suitable rental in Riverdale, and invited them to her summer home in Riverton, Vermont. She wrote a book in 1958 about the experience called "The Naked Face of Genius: Béla Bartók's American Years." The book was reprinted by Dover publications in 1970 renamed "Béla Bartók; The American Years."

The book is filled with delightful recollections. "The episodes the author recounts are concerned mainly with little things," wrote Bartók biographer Halsey Stevens in a book review. "Food, cats, house hunting, radios, toadstools, Proust--and one finishes by seeming an intimate of the Bartók household."

We are in the middle of one of these anecdotes. In it, Bartók is relaxed and has offered to play for Agatha. She chose his famous early work "Allegro barbaro:"

“All right then,” he said flatly, “here is Allegro barbaro. But I want you to understand that it represents a period I left behind me long ago, so if you find it somewhat mechanical, remember that I warned you.”

This was a remark from his own private world of fine distinctions, where each solution of a creative problem was a progressive gain over the last one of even a day before. But this distinction, however, failed to register in me as he brought the piano to life with a fire that seemed to kindle the entire house into a blaze of rhythm, consuming away all the excitements and tensions of the day. Bartók, playing his own music, was a demonstration of the absolute values in which and for which he

“At other times I was able to remember this experience, and remind myself that the very intensity that was such an alive force in his music presented itself in every other layer of his life and set him far apart from everyone else I knew. It was his genius and his misfortune that he was incapable of triviality in even the most trivial circumstances. This was a discovery that held me completely as I was listening to him play the Allegro barbaro that afternoon.”

As often as quotations from this book spice the Bartók literature it is just as often smashed. Hamish Milne described the book as "disconcertingly novelettish" and claimed that Agatha Illés wrote it under a pseudonym. Illés was her maiden name. But this person who told us so much about Bartók's personality is someone about whom very little is known. It would be wonderful to have more of the biographical details of her life made available.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Béla Bartók Talks

Hearing the voice of Béla Bartók remains startling for those who knew it only through his music.

It was on a Sunday, July 2, 1944, and Ditta Pásztory-Bartók was performing some of her husband's piano works at the Brooklyn Museum. Also on the program were some arrangements of works from Bartók's Mikrokosmos made by Tibor Serly for piano and strings. The performance, and interview by David LeVita, were part of a series called "Ask the Composer." The performances and interviews were recorded and archived by the Brooklyn Museum.

The first exchange concerns Bartók's Sonatina: LeVita: "Dr. Bartók, can you tell us something about the movements of the Sonatina which Mrs. Bartók is going to play for us first? The titles suggest that there is some reference to Hungarian folklore or everyday scenes from Hungarian life. I refer of course to the names of the first movement, 'the Bagpipe Players,' and the second movement called the 'Bear Dance.'"

Bartók: "This sonatina was originally conceived as a group of Romanian folk dances for piano. The three parts which Mrs. Bartók will play were selected from a 'group' and given its present title of Sonatina. The first movement which is called 'Bagpipe Players' is a dance; these are two dances played by two bagpipe players, the first by one and the second theme by another. The second movement is called 'Bear Dance.' This was played for me by a peasant violinist on the G and D strings (on the lower strings in order to have it more similar to a Bear's voice. Generally the violin players use the E string). And the last movement contains also two folk melodies played by peasant violin players."

Bartók replies with an organized strategy; he considers the overall set and its derivation first, then briefly details each movement in order. He is formal in his response, but subtle humor can be savored in his details of how the peasant played the music and the effect that was intended by playing this way. This information was colorful and not structural so it show him at ease. Bartók finds his way back to formality using a bridge that is pedagogical--he indicates how a violinist would normally have played that particular tune. This performance of the Sonatina is by Béla himself:
The second "dance" of the opening movement begins at the timing [0:32] with the return to the opening dance at [0:53]. The "Bear Dance" begins at [1:37], the final movement at [2:06] with the "second folk melody" beginning at [2:32].

The next several exchanges: LeVita: "Dr. Bartók, do you consider the Suite op. 14, which Mrs. Bartók is going to play next, representative of your abstract piano compositions and if so, what qualities make it so?"

Bartók: "If by abstract music you mean absolute music without program, then, yes. The Suite op. 14 has no folk tunes. It is based entirely on original themes...of my own invention. When this work was composed I had in mind the refining of piano technique, the changing of piano technique, into a more transparent style. A style more of bone and muscle opposing the heavy chordal style of the late, latter romantic period, that is, unessential ornaments like broken chords and other figures are omitted and it is more ... a simpler style."

 LeVita: "Dr. Bartók, is there any essential difference between the next number on our program, the First Rondo composed comparably recently in 1932, and your early works?"

Bartók: "Actually the Rondo is of the same period as the Suite you just heard. In its original form they were three separate pieces, all based on Slovakian folk material. Much later in 1932 they were welded together to make one complete movement in rondo form."

 LeVita: "Following the First Rondo Mrs. Bartók has two other piano pieces in her group and the first one of course is the Bulgarian Rhythm. The second one of the piano pieces, 'Evening in Transylvania,' suggested it may have been composed with some special situation or event in mind. And I know that your music is never meant to be personal. Can you tell us about it, Dr. Bartók?"

Bartók: "'Evening in Transylvania' is an original composition that is (my) with themes of my own invention but it ... the themes are in the style of the Hungarian-Transylvanian folk tunes. There are two themes. The first one is a parlando rubato rhythm and the second one is more in a dance like rhythm. The second one is more or less the imitation of a peasant flute playing. And the first one, the parlando rubato is an imitation of song: vocal melody. The form of it is ABABA."

Bartók playing Evening in Transylvania:

The outline of sections described by Bartók [A 0:00, B 0:40, A 1:00, B 1:39, A 2:02]

The final exchange with Bartók comes after a noticeable splice. This splice was probably to edit out the performance itself and join the conversations into a continuous interview.

LeVita: "The Mikrokosmos Cycle which Mr. Serly has transcribed for piano and string orchestra is such a vast work. I wonder if you can tell us briefly what it comprises."

Bartók: "The Mikrokosmos is a cycle of 150 and 3 pieces for piano written with didactical purposes. That is to give pieces, piano pieces which can be used from the very beginning and then going on, it is graded according to difficulties. And the word Cosmos may be interpreted, Mikrokosmos may be interpreted as a series of pieces (in) all of a different style that represent a small world. Or it may be interpreted as a world: a musical world for the little ones...for the children."

The interview also contained an exchange between LeVita and Serly that is not included with this audio clip. The question was directed to Bartók but Serly intercepted:

LeVita: "Do you know whether Mr. Serly found it necessary to alter material much in transcription?"

Serly: "Yes Mister. Certainly."

LeVita: "Yes, perhaps Mr. Serly would be the best one to answer that."

Serly: No treatise or text-book has ever been written that so tellingly reveals the story of the development of musical styles as these brief minute microcosmic sketches. These miniature gems illustrate scale structures, chords, modes, forms, rhythms, harmonies, imitations and canons with dazzling ingenuity. Regarding the transcriptions we are to play, I have selected six to illustrate that they are more than mere piano pieces. As is often the case with the musical part, a more expanded treatment brings to the fore many actual and implied inner voices that are not apparent in the original piano form. Naturally, voices have been shifted, contrapuntal parts have been separated into instrumental units and occasional sonorities have been filled out. Otherwise materially nothing has been altered nor has anything been added."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Met Live in HD: An Aida of Voices not Acting

“Fill me with rapture my love” sang Dolora Zajick as Amneris while reclining on a chaise lounge at the opening of the second act of Aida. She was singing to a lover who was absent, who was never in love with her, and who had already committed his love for someone socially unattainable: her slave Aida. Zajick’s voice was sonic rapture.

It was the voices, not the acting, that shaped this Aida, but the stiff and unimaginative postures of the five principals actually made it harder to tune into the magical singing that took place.

Carlo Guelfi was the most convincing in his role among this cast. He played Aida’s father Amonasro and was able to project the restless intensity of this part which was the highlight of the third act. Tenor Johan Botha met the challenges of singing Rademès with power and an effortless high register. Violeta Urmana was a forceful Aida who sometimes underplayed tenderness.

With all the spectacle in Aida one seldom has the opportunity to think of the lighting director, but this production was filled with haunted rich darknesses created by Gil Wechsler, and even on the flat screen of the cinema the atmosphere was impressive.

Shifting among the many possible camera angles ruined the dance sequences. The overhead angle was effective and of interest in seeing spatial relationships, but we shifted among angles and viewpoints so frequently that lines of motion in the dancing itself were almost completely destroyed.

This broadcast may hold the record for "most compressed Aida experience" at two and a half hours because it was given in theaters continuously without any intermissions. This created a breathlessness that opposed the impressions of the monumental, of the processional, and of the ceremonial that are sought in Aida.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Renée Fleming commits Magicide in Rossini’s Armida

To watch Rossini's Armida "Live in HD" was to become Ubaldo and Carlo at the opening of Act 3. These brothers-in-arms were seeking their friend Rinaldo and managed to locate a pleasure garden. They set about exploring the beauty of this garden—particularly its echoes—even though they were aware that what they were experiencing was not real.

The rebroadcast itself was like the echo heard by Ubaldo and Carlo, and one could enter this pleasure garden with surprising ease.

But the event brought up some questions. The original Met audience broke into applause at the end of the act one quartet “Sventurata! Or Che Mi Resta...” to acknowledge how great soprano Renée Fleming’s sounded within a complex ensemble. Their applause brought up a dilemma: should a movie theater applaud an illusion?

The answer was unresolved. A few people clapped unapologetically but were alone. All evening this produced a fascinating sense of awkwardness.

Ubaldo and Carlo also pulled back from fantasy, even rejecting the seductions offered by a chorus of nymphs, in order to stay focused on their identities and on their role within the event. They enjoyed the gardens but kept a firm grip on the wheel. We as an audience seemed to follow them.

Armida is about the interplay of identity, and particularly the temptation to renounce the schedules, plans, and goal-oriented functions that unfold at the level of community and swallow our ability to have fun; to relax and enjoy sensuality.

Act one of Armida centers on a duet (Amor!...Possente Nome!) between Armida (Fleming) and Rinaldo (Lawrence Brownlee) where E-flat major and spiraling coloratura bump the trajectories and plans of both characters. These characters sing about love, but were more in flight than in love. When the crowd turns against Rinaldo for killing the angry Gernando, Armida uses magic to conjure a storm so that she and Rinaldo can escape.

Act Two has a parenthetical feel and was framed in motion with a dance of the furies on one side and a gorgeous and clever 20-minute ballet (in which Armida and Rinaldo are spectators like us) on the other. A central duet between Rinaldo and Armida and Armida’s solo “theme and variations” aria “D’Amore al dolce impero” developed the sense of attraction as physical intoxication and altered reality in the center of this relatively short act.

In act three, Ubaldo and Carlo do not rely on logic or law in their pleasure intervention: they show Rinaldo his own reflection in a shield. When he sees his new identity—how different it has caused him to become—he feels shame.

This moment is the other great transition in this opera and it is marked with a rare texture: a tenor trio. In the Terzetto “In Quale Aspetto Imbelle” three Rossini tenors sing simultaneously, and the masterstroke is that the ideas center on shame rather than more stereotypical ideals of heroism.

Rinaldo chooses to re-enter his life and proceed, clutching his memory of bliss, as if nothing had ever happened. Fortunately he seemed to have been forgiven for the second degree murder of Gernando in act one. It is easy to imagine a sequel to Armida where Ubaldo and Carlo are not interventionists but police perpetuating one last grand illusion, and facilitating a new identity for Rinaldo as an inmate.

For Armida the road back to her former identity remains unresolved. In her final aria, “Dove Son Io!...Fuggi...” she considers her options. The revenge she chooses is directed inward: she commits "magicide." Armida annihilates her pleasure palace, seeing to close off access to this dimension of her personality before she disappeared from view.

Hearing opera in a theater is not like being in the Met: multiple camera angles give hyper-real visual perspectives and the HD sound is good but lacks the rich edges of live sound. Still, because the events are rarely broadcast they do create a sense of anticipation. Hearing opera in a local community is an important privilege that has grown increasingly rare. Even if the production was couched in illusions it was very much worth sharing.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Augustinian Conflict in a Schumann Song

The ninth song in Schumann's Dichterliebe is another Augustinian Conflict. The setting for this song takes place during a wedding celebration where everyone is dancing and having a great time except for the singer since his girl is marrying someone else:


Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen, (There is a flute and violin,)
Trompeten schmettern darein. (Trumpets blare away)
Trompeten schmettern darein. (Trumpets blare away)

Da tanzt wohl den Hochzeitreigen, (There dances in her wedding)
die Herzallerliebste mein. (The love of my heart)
die Herzallerliebste mein. (The love of my heart)

Das ist ein Klingen und Dröhnen, (There is ringing and droning)
Das ist ein Klingen und Dröhnen, (There is ringing and droning)
ein Pauken und ein Schalmei'n; (of drums and shawms)

dazwischen schluchzen und stöhnen (amidst it sobbing and moaning)
dazwischen schluchzen und stöhnen (amidst it sobbing and moaning)
die lieblichen Engelein. (Are lovely angels)

I recopied the lines that are doubled because the pattern changes: the first two strophes are [ABB] and the last two are [AAB].

In each of the four stophes there are three lines of text but the dance music groups into larger units of fours. How do we hear the extra grouping? Hearing each measure as a beat in a larger hypermeter the following pattern emerges:


The opening four measure vamp seems like an introduction, but if we hear it as a downbeat then the entrance of the singer feels swept within the larger structure and is more consistent with the augustinian conflict in the setting.

Like several other songs in this cycle the harmony oscillates, here between phrase groups in D minor and G minor like this:

(D minor)(G Minor)+(D Minor)(G Minor)+(DGVV)

In the last phrase the alternation happens at the level of the phrase rather than at the level of phrase grouping, and the last two phrases prolong the V of G which also sounds like a picardy third in D minor. Great stuff.

For a completely different view of this song listen to track 12 of the 1999 recording called "Love Fugue" by jazz pianist Uri Caine. Caine brings the poet's angst into a setting that could evoke a late-millennium wedding reception. This witty presentation is wordless and generally light on conflict, but the progressions around the circle of fifths played by this ensemble causes one to hear with greater accuracy the jazz in the original Schumann.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Music as heard by an Outsider: Another Augustinian Conflict

In yesterday's posting I reflected on music that does not match the mindframe of the listener. I called this an Augustinian Conflict.

One of the classic ways of to create Augustinian Conflict is by thwarting dance music. A great example is the music of the second theme group in the opening movement of Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony." 

The passage we will focus on is the second theme group, at time marker [1:09]:

Furtwangler 1953

Motion is suspended briefly at this point of transition while the D held by the horns gets reinterpreted from the third of B minor to the fifth of G major. This reinterpretation happens with two quick chords as the horns move out of unison--more shift than transition. The way B minor and G major rub against one another is characteristic of the Schubert style.

The tune that emerges in G major could be cheerful dance music but it is thwarted by Schubert through a dynamic marking of pianissimo. Very few orchestras can suppress the desire to play louder and normalize this passage. Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic do better than many, but when the violins enter they are much louder than the pianissimo dynamic that Schubert marked.

The sounding of music that would normally be festive and joyous at an unnaturally quiet volume creates disconnect. It is like music heard outside of a ballroom where everyone but you is having a great time. It is music that represents one attitude being overheard by a listener with a different attitude. Schubert has written music as overheard by an outsider; a wanderer. This is Augustinian Conflict at work.

Isolate the bass. It pulses the downbeats of this dance; one pulse per measure. If you group those pulses into larger groupings (sometimes called hypermeter) it reveals another stretching that shows unrest. The pattern can be summarized like this:

2+(4+5) (4+5)

The "2" is the vamp before the cellos play the tune. Listen for how the "5" feels stretched and almost ready to burst before the entrance of the violins. This sense is even more apparent during the second "5" then......silence.

The intense and conflicted passage that follows is a realization of tensions already present. It is of interest, and seems part of the charm of this recording, that a relatively quiet audience suddenly begins coughing and becomes quite restless during this turbulence. Coincidence probably but it sounds, at least in this recording, like a sympathetic vibration.

Hypermetric pulses are still present during the turbulence but they are harder to feel. The dance music is finally restored at [2:54] but with two consecutive phrases of "5." Contrapuntal echo and stretched hypermeter show that resolution has not yet taken place.

Schubert went out of his way to create delightful strangeness throughout the second theme group of this movement. He framed it in Augustinian Conflict.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Augustin in August

Almost exactly one hundred years ago, in August 1910, Gustav Mahler sought out Sigmund Freud. The two had trouble coordinating schedules and cancelled three times before finally meeting. They spent four hours walking in and around a University town in the province of South Holland called Leiden.

What we know of the encounter was shaped by interdisciplinary interaction between scholars on the Mahler side (Donald Mitchell) and the Freud side (Ernest Jones) in the mid-1950s. In a transcript from a 1955 radio broadcast Mitchell quotes Jones:

“Mahler suddenly said that now he understood why his music had always been prevented from achieving the highest rank through the noblest passages, those inspired by the most profound emotions, being spoilt by the intrusion of some commonplace melody. His father, apparently a brutal person, treated his wife very badly, and when Mahler was a young boy there was an especially painful scene between them. It became quite unbearable to the boy, who rushed away from the house. At that moment, however, a hurdy-gurdy in the street was grinding out the popular Viennese air ‘Ach, du lieber Augustin’. In Mahler's opinion the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement was from then on inextricably fixed in his mind, and the one mood inevitably brought the other with it.”

Mitchell knew this was an oversimplification. But putting aside any specific connection to Mahler’s music I remain interested in this anecdote.

It clarifies a species of disconnect: an overlay or juxtaposition of incongruent attitudes which might be called an “Augustinian Conflict.”

Augustin was a 17th century street musician in Vienna. The legend is that he fell one night into a pit hastily dug as a mass grave for victims of the bubonic plague. He fell pipes and all. Relaxed because he was drunk, the legend also implies that alcohol protected him from contracting the plague. Unlike those around him, Augustin climbed out of the pit. He became legend.

The song is not focused on the drama of the story but instead derives humor from contrasting lyrics of despair and loss with a tune both catchy and carefree. Most English speakers know this melody as “Did You Ever See a Lassie” where the text matches the spirit of the tune.

How different is this text from “Lassie?"
The Refrain:
Ach, du lieber Augustin, Augustin, Augustin,
(Oh, Beloved Augustin, Augustin, Augustin
Ach, du lieber Augustin, alles ist hin.
(Oh, Beloved Augustin, all is lost now)

The first of several verses:
Geld ist weg, Mäd´l ist weg, Alles hin, Augustin.
(Money gone, girlfriend gone, all is gone Augustin)

O, du lieber Augustin, Alles ist hin.
(Oh, Beloved Augustin, all is lost now)

Take away the text and imagine Mahler hearing this tune while in a state of torment:
Creepy right?

A variation on Mahler's Augustinian conflict was created by Mahler's younger colleague and admirer Arnold Schoenberg. Two years before the meeting between Mahler and Freud, Schoenberg actually quoted "Ach, du Lieber Augustin" in a conflicted musical context.

Written during Mathilde Schoenberg's ill-fated affair with their neighbor, the painter Richard Gerstl, in 1908, the second string quartet is a work full of contradiction. It is a quartet for five players: a soprano is required for the final two movements where the voice articulates the dramatic spine of the music with a magical presence. This is music of the unconscious mind; a mind being mapped in real time in the Vienna of 1908.

The opening movement focuses on a waltz of silences, and breaking suddenly away from this waltz seems more significant than the dancing itself. The second movement, "Sehr rasch," has a contrasting central section in which there is an Augustinian moment.

The passage happens from 3:56-4:30 in this lively recording:


Listen for the second violin for the first quotation from "Ach, du Lieber Augustin." The reference then sinks into the viola and then into the cello where it fragments and vaporizes while displaced motives sound above.

Woodcarving of "Der Lieber Augustin" at the Griechenbeisl Inn on Fleischmarkt in Vienna June 2010

Saturday, June 12, 2010


We enter the sonic labyrinth by passing through a work created in the fourteenth century by one of the first composers of classical music who transmitted his personality in biography, allegory, music and other writings. Guillaume de Machaut (ca.1300-1377) was a blogger in an age that had not yet harnessed electricity.

The work is a Rondeau called “Ma fin est mon commencement (My end is my beginning).” There is a good recording by the Orlando Consort (track 13) upon which the section timings listed below are based:

Ma fin est mon commencement (My end is my beginning) [A:0:00]
Et mon commencement ma fin (And my beginning my end) [B:0:48]
Est teneure vraiement (And true tenor) [A: 1:33]

Ma fin est mon commencement. (My end is my beginning) [A:2:18]
Mes tiers chans trois fois seulement (My third part three times only) [A:3:04]
Se retrograde et einsi fin. (Moves backwards and so ends) [B:3:50]

Ma fin est mon commencement (My end is my beginning) [A:4:38]
Et mon commencement ma fin. (And my beginning my end.) [B:5:25]
Each line of text is set as a complete musical section and there are two different sections of music, marked A or B in the square brackets above. One must learn to hear the dance of pattern within tercets, the first three lines [ABA] followed in the second tercet by [AAB] with the sectional sequence of the second and third lines reversed. The pattern challenges our ability to hear and simultaneously concentrate on direction: this is a sonic labyrinth.

You may find the words hard to follow. Machaut loved them, so he wanted to hold on to them in the music. This melismatic style is a way to love words by extending them but it also makes them harder to understand; more like emotions than discourse.

The setting of the text “My End is my Beginning” is musically literal. The A section of one voice is created by playing the B section of another voice backwards. Because of this the music that sounds at the opening is literally the ending and beginning simultaneously.

What about the third voice? And what is the text of the second tercet about?

The second tercet is a song text about the construction of the song, like a house singing about its own architecture. The “third part” is written in only one section. To complete the B section for the third part, one must read it backwards—returning to the beginning. Reversal is another way the end could become the beginning. The third part is only played backward during the B section and there are three B sections played during the eight lines of text. Since the final section is a B section it “ends” there:

“My third part three times only, moves backwards and so ends.”

This music sounds the impossible: moving back in time while moving forward in time. That was the foundation for contemplation by a master who survived the black-death. And yet Machaut spun a lighthearted maze: this is not music that is fearful or dramatic. Cut in sharp angles and elusive patterns it nonetheless remains friendly and relaxed. May this music remain a companion as we continue into the labyrinth.

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