Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Visit in 1914 to the House where Mozart was Born

(Photograph of the inner courtyard within the Mozart Geburtshaus taken by Jeffrey Johnson in 2010.)

Harriette Brower (1854-1928) wrote an article for The Etude Music Magazine (1883-1957) in January 1914 about a trip that she took to visit Salzburg. The museum opened in 1880, but written accounts of visits to the geburtshaus in English are not as common as one might suspect. Harriette writes an engaging article about her visit. She writes in motion; recording observations like a video camera that translates into words. She brings us to the house by crossing the river and walking through town. Like much of her writing it is saturated in charm:

"Let us turn our steps toward the old part of the town, and cross the river by the wide city bridge. Stop a moment in the centre and glance down at the shallow, pale green Salzach, as it hurries over its rocky bed. Look up the river and see how the mountains seem to close in, sloping down to the water’s edge; note the fine promenades, shaded by double rows of thick chestnut trees, on each side of the river; while hack of them rise most picturesque old buildings. Then lift your eyes to the great fortress of Hohe Salzburg—-a more formidable pile of rock and masonry than the old Burg at Nuremberg—-and you can make for yourself a general outline of the picture.

"Now we will proceed to the end of the bridge, and at once you are in the old part of Salzburg. Before you runs the narrow, busy street called the Getreide Gasse. The houses are all about four stories high, not including the street floor. Some of them look ancient, others have been modernized, few are of recent build. Each house has its shop, on the ground floor; and what curious little shops they are, with every kind of article for sale. Carved wood, glassware, shoes, pictures, postcards and Mozart mementos everywhere. Turn to the right now, and walk along this quaint thoroughfare. Perhaps business signs will catch your eye at first; some of them are very unusual. One, which belongs to a gold-beater’s shop, is really very handsome. A great golden eagle holding a wreath of green olive leaves in his beak. Many of these houses have narrow passages, dark and stony, running through them to the river on the other side. Pass along this street a short distance till you reach a small square—-Haganau Platz it is called.

"Look up at the third floor of the house facing this small square, and you will see the magic words 'Mozarts Geburtshaus.' Here, then, was the birthplace of one of the greatest composers who ever lived. The great, wide house doors stand wide open: they are of massive wood, covered with iron, to preserve them, and are painted black. Large brass handles are in the center of each--a lion’s head holding a ring--formed of a coiled serpent, in his mouth.

"Three flights of narrow stone stairs bring us to the right landing. How dark it all is here--though there are one or two openings letting in a few rays of light from the court at the back. We ring, an attendant opens, and we stand within the very room where Mozart was born. In the farther corner stood the cradle: the space is now occupied by a fine bust of the composer decorated with green. There is only one window, looking out to the court. Beyond, a glimpse can be caught of one of the square towers of the old University Church, perhaps the most picturesque in Salzburg."

[The prior two sentences describe the view in the photograph at the top of this page].

"The walls of this little room are hung with family portraits and mementos. Here is a large painting of Leopold Mozart and his family—-his wife and two children. Here are several portraits of Mozart as a child of six, ten and twelve years; in one of which he is veritably the “Little Prince.” Here, too, is a painting of Mozart’s two sons--it seems he had seven children—-the others, however, died in infancy. This portrait is an ideal one--the boys have very spirituelle faces. There are also likenesses of the sons when grown to manhood. At one side of the room is the tiny spinet on which the little wonder-child practiced; at the opposite side stands the harpsichord on which he used to give concerts.

"The attendant assured us the wooden floor was the veritable floor on which the Mozart’s trod--that it had not been renewed. The tall green porcelain stove was also the same they had used.

"The front room leading from this is much larger, almost twice the size. It was doubtless the general living room of the family; its four windows look out on the Getreide Gasse. The Mozarts surely made music in this room, and if the walls could but speak, what thrilling, inspiring stories they might tell Perhaps here is where little Wolfgang, at five, wrote and played for his family and friends those dainty menuettes which have come down to us. Fourteen portraits of the composer hang about the room. Here is a quaint little safe, not five feet long, some odd old chairs and a handsome inlaid cabinet, all of which had belonged to the family. The cabinet holds a complete collection of the composer’s works. The Mozarts were certainly in comfortable circumstances there are no traces of the touching poverty found in the early homes of Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert.

"A small front chamber, connecting with the large one, now contains a fine model of the new Mozarteum, the concert hall and conservatory, which are now being constructed through the efforts of the Mozart societies. There were probably several other rooms in the apartment, but only these three are shown, the remainder being reserved for the caretaker. What we saw filled us with tender reverence for the gifted man and gratitude that the place where he lived and worked as a child has been preserved intact till to-day."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Two levels of syncopation in Mozart's early G Minor Symphony

The opening of the first movement of Mozart's early G minor symphony K. 183 is arresting. Its vibrant syncopated beginning is used as a symbol of shock during the unexpected discovery of Salieri's suicide attempt in the movie Amadeus. The syncopation is expressed as a kind of tearing with the violins and violas pulling against the celli and basses. The suddenness of melodic motions is dizzying. This movement is all about intensities.

The movie is edited to correspond to sections within the sonata form expert that is played. The lengthy transition is greeted by a blinding overheard shot of an indoor ballroom lit with real candles in the chandeliers.

As the second theme group begins a massive double-door is swung open.

But in a symphony of intensities, even the musette which comprises the second theme group in B-flat major is connected to the opening gesture by the use of syncopation--in this case a syncopation that happens at the phrase level rather than syncopation within the measure:

In the photograph above, I marked the first four measures of the second theme group beginning in the fourth measure of the top system. Count those measures in hypermetric 8th note language with two articulations per measure (ONE-and-TWO-and-THREE-and-FOUR-and), and the phrase structure becomes apparent. It has the same properties that each individual measure has at a different scale of time.

One the second system the balancing phrase is cut short by one-half a measure, and the restatement of the second theme group begins on the second part of the measure--it is a metric-level syncopation (AND-one-AND-two-AND-three-AND-four) (AND-one-AND-two-AND-three-AND).

The metric syncopation resolves at [4:03] on a downbeat that in turn launches us into closing gestures.

I had the great opportunity to study and work with Lukas Foss. He used to say of Mozart that while anyone could put notes together that belonged together, that Mozart "was the kind of genius that could put ideas together that did not belong together and make them work."

What better example of this than the sense that ideas can connect by using syncopation to communicate urgency and intensity at different distances from the musical surface.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

That Song that Reminds you of a Lost Lover; 19th-century Sampling

Technology has made it easy to sample music from the past; music filled with associations that can be made into a powerful background for lyrics of reflection and commentary. But long before electricity, Robert Schumann invented the concept of sampling.

In the tenth song of Dichterliebe we share the pain of a singer who is sick with memory. He hears a song that his lover used to sing--Schumann scores its tune as an introduction for piano alone.

The singer slowly raps over the progression, so that the melody of the vocal part lies on top of the song, meditating on it.

This lovely performance by Hélène Grimaud and Thomas Quasthoff is transposed from the bright G minor of the original into a darker E minor; making it sound even more like pop music:

The sampled song creates motion and emotion. In response [0:34] the music begins to climb and with a piercing Neapolitan chord [0:45] it modulates into A minor.
Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen, (I hear the little song sounding)
das einst die Liebste sang, (my love once sang,)

[0:57] Dark longing and deep forests are given voice through broken patterns; patterns on the edge of clarity that that recoil quickly into darkness. The texture does not change--it still whispers of his lover's rhythms.

so will mir die Brust zerspringen (and my heart wants to shatter)
von wildem Schmerzendrang. (from the wild rush of pain.)

[1:28] Unexpectedly, before the resolution back to E minor, the lover's song is heard in the highest register of the piano part--over the last two words of the text. This song will require purely musical responses.

Es treibt mich ein dunkles Sehnen (I am driven by dark longing)
hinauf zur Waldeshöh', (up to the forest heights)
dort lös't sich auf in Tränen (there is dissolved in tears)
mein übergroßes Weh'. (my supremely great pain)

[1:40] The lover's tune is now focused in a lower voice of the piano writing.
Grimaud accents it, understanding its significance. [1:48] The lover's tune now appears again in a lower register; it is being internalized.

The "supremely great pain" is finally unleashed in the cadenza.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Some Early Early Music "Evelyn Innes" by George Moore (1898)

George Moore (1852-1933) wrote a haunting and lyrical book about a soprano who is torn between early music and Wagner, between two very different lovers, between religion and atheism. According to Moore's biographer Adrian Frazier, "Evelyn Innes" was inspired by a visit that Moore made on January 30, 1894 to the home (called "Dowlands") of early music specialist Arnold Dolmetsch in Dulwich, Greater London, UK. The book appeared in print in 1898.

"Moore found enormously engaging," wrote Frazier, "the strangely tuned instruments, the domestic charm of Dowlands with its music room hung with viols, lutes, and violins, and the beauty of Dolmetsch's daughter Helene."

In this expert from the opening chapter, we meet Mr. Innes at work on a virginal. After he finishes his adjustments he plays two identified works. We hear these pieces in their entirety before learning anything of the plot. They set a sonic attitude and open the narrative with their rhythms, suggesting that the sense of the opening passage must be absorbed at a speed appropriate to hearing.

The opening passage of "Evelyn Innes" by George Moore:

"The thin winter day had died early, and at four o’clock it was dark night in the long room in which Mr. Innes gave his concerts of early music. An Elizabethan virginal had come to him to be repaired, and he had worked all the afternoon, and when overtaken by the dusk, he had impatiently sought a candle end, lit it, and placed it so that its light fell upon the jacks. . . . Only one more remained to be adjusted. He picked it up, touched the quill and dropped it into its place, rapidly tuned the instrument, and ran his fingers over the keys.

"Iron-grey hair hung in thick locks over his forehead, and, shining through their shadows, his eyes drew attention from the rest of his face, so that none noticed at first the small and firmly cut nose, nor the scanty growth of beard twisted to a point by a movement habitual to the weak, white hand. His face was in his eyes: they reflected the flame of faith and of mission; they were the eyes of one whom fate had thrown on an obscure wayside of dreams, the face of a dreamer and propagandist of old-time music and its instruments. He sat at the virginal, like one who loved its old design and sweet tone, in such strict keeping with the music he was playing—a piece by W. Byrd, 'John, come kiss me now.'

(Performance by Elena Zhukova)

"—-and when it was finished, his fingers strayed into another, 'Nancie,' by Thomas Morley.

"His hands moved over the keyboard softly, as if they loved it, and his thoughts, though deep in the gentle music, entertained casual admiration of the sixteenth century organ, which had lately come into his possession, and which he could see at the end of the room on a slightly raised platform. Its beautiful shape, and the shape of the old instruments, vaguely perceived, lent an enchantment to the darkness. In the corner was a viola da gamba, and against the walls a harpsichord and a clavichord.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Summer on the last day of Summer; Strauss and Fleming

The season has already changed. Light is slanting, and as the sun sets earlier we turn inward. Tonight is the last full moon of September. It has been called the "corn moon," or the "harvest moon," and it marks the Zhongqiu Festival in Chinese culture.

At age 84, Richard Strauss wrote his "Four Last Songs." He did not live long enough to hear them played. September, based on a poem written by Hermann Hesse, is the second song in the cycle; and here, sung by Renée Fleming at the proms in 2001, is a perfect setting for the harvest moon:

[0:27] The garden mourns in D major. The cool rain is chromatic but does not wander. One word is extended: Blumen. Strauss holds on to the flowers. The phrase closes in D:

Der Garten trauert (The garden is mourning,)
kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen (Cool sinks into the flowers from rain)

[1:00] We move into a bright G major. An important oscillating figure is introduced. It will develop an association with shuddering. The harmony also oscillates between major and minor. The last line is set as a motion down a major third into B-flat major [1:21]. It is a Schubertian move.

[1:31] A deflection is all that is required to embed this music a major third further removed; travelling the cycle of major thirds into G-flat major. Falling leaves may appear golden but they turn beautiful colors in death--the second major third in a cycle. Falling motion is set in chromatic descent and we leave the acacia tree poised on the dominant of G major:

[2:14] How great it feels to return to G major even if only for an instant--long enough to hear the motive of oscillation transformed. The music becomes restless then floats over the word "sterbenden" (dying). Dying is encoded with the oscillation motive of summer:

[3:00] Fleming's ascending line is a sonic rose. The music shifts into E-flat major, hugging the Neapolitan and thinking about closing:

[3:33] The music arrives in the dominant--but a Straussian dominant with veils and dry ice. "Weary" is melismatic with a final transformation of the oscillating motive into triplets:

sehnt sich nach Ruh. (yearning for peace,)
Langsam tut er (slowly it closes)
die müdgeword'nen Augen zu (its weary eyes.)

[4:30] The famous horn solo that closes this song carries with it a strong association with hunting, perhaps searching in this context, and it transforms the oscillation motive into the purely instrumental to close the song in D major.
Lange noch bei den Rosen (Lingering still near the roses)
bleibt er stehn, (it remains standing,)

Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt (Summer marvels and smiles seeing)
In den sterbenden Gartentraum. (the dying garden-dream)

Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt (Golden leaves; leaf upon leaf,)
nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum (Fall from the tallest acacia tree.)

Der Sommer schauer still (The summer shudders quietly)
seinem Ende entgegen. (as it meets its end.)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

An "Encounter" with Milan Kundera's new book of Essays

Milan Kundera writes frequently about classical music. Detailed references to specific works are woven throughout his writing. In "Immortality," the character Paul is speaking to a character who has written the novel "Life is Elsewhere." Paul is talking to a semi-fictional Kundera about Mahler's seventh symphony:

"Everything is worked through, thought through, felt through, nothing has been left to chance," explains Paul to Kundera in the novel, "but that enormous perfection overwhelms us, it surpasses the capacity of our memory, our ability to concentrate, so that even the most fanatically attentive listener will grasp no more than one-hundredth of the symphony, and certainly it will be this one-hundredth that Mahler cared about the least."

"I don't deny those symphonies their perfection," continued Paul, "I only deny the importance of that perfection. [...] we exaggerated their significance. [...] Europe reduced Europe to fifty works of genius that it never understood."

Even in dismantling Paul, Kundera is both insightful and funny.

His new book, "Encounter," seems in dialog with his writing of the past, and is often in dialog with the past itself.

In "The Total Rejection of Heritage, or Iannis Xenakis." Kundera is in dialog with an essay that he wrote in 1980. He interrupts his earlier text with comments written in 2008. "I found consolation in Xenakis's music," wrote Kundera in 1980, "I learned to love it during the darkest time of my life, and that of my homeland." In 2008 he comments; "His music reconciled me to the inevitability of endings."

The music of Leoš Janáček has been "indelibly written" into his "aesthetic genes." Janáček "lived his whole life in Brno," wrote Kundera, "like my father who, as a young pianist, was a member of the enchanted (and isolated) circle of the composer's connoisseurs and defenders. [...] from my earliest childhood, I would hear his music played daily on the piano by my father or by his students; at my father's funeral in 1971, during that sombre period of the Russian occupation, I forbade any orations; only at the crematorium, four musician friends played Janáček's Second String Quartet."

There is also a lovely essay on "The Cunning little Vixen," which Kundera calls "The Most Nostalgic Opera" in the essay's title.

"The final passage of the opera begins with a scene that seems insignificant but that always grips my heart," writes Kundera. "I know of no other opera scene so utterly banal in its dialogue; or any scene of sadness more poignant, more real."

"Janáček has managed to say what only an opera can say: the unbearable nostalgia of insignificant talk at an inn cannot be expressed any other way than by an opera: the music becomes the fourth dimension of a situation which without it would remain anodyne, unnoticed, mute."

There is an essay called "forgetting Schoenberg," which is a plea to hear the "fearsome grandeur" of "A Survivor from Warsaw." There are references to Milhaud, the late piano fugues of Beethoven as a "dream of total heritage," and anecdotes about Adorno, Stravinsky, Saint-Saëns.

Any encounter with Kundera promises lightness, farewell waltzes, laughter and forgetting; his work is familiar but it remains fresh.

"Encounter" is welcome.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Defense of Whistling?

"Because girls and newsboys pipe ragtime without regard to the diatonic scale," wrote Schauffler, "why should my avocation be banned by polite society?"

Robert Haven Schauffler (1879-1964) was a cellist who became a successful journalist, writer and poet. He is best known for his colorful biographies including: Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music (1929), The Unknown Brahms (1933), Florestan: The Life and Work of Robert Schumann (1945), and Franz Schubert: The Ariel of Music (1949).

He also wrote travel books, a series of books discussing and explaining holidays and observances: Thanksgiving (1907), Arbor Day (1909), and Washington's Birthday (1910). I helped prepare an edition of his book on Christmas (1907) for Project Gutenberg in 2006.

His colorful essay, "A Defense of Whistling" was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1910 and the next year was reworked and included in his book called "The Musical Amateur."

"My avocation consists in whistling to myself the most beautiful melodies in existence, and I go about in a state of perpetual surprise that no one else does likewise. Never have I heard a passing stranger whistling anything worth while; but I have my plans all laid for the event... .I shall chime in with the second violin or cello part perhaps, or, if he has stopped, I shall pipe up the answering melody.

"The human whistle is the most delightfully informal of all instruments. It needs to inglorious lubrication of joints and greasing of keys like its dearest relative the flute. It is not subject to the vocalists eternal cold. It knows no inferno of tuning and snapping strings, nor does it need resin..

"One of the best qualities of the whistle is that it is so portable. The whistler…shall have music wherever he goes: and to carry about a wealth of Schubert and Beethoven and Chopin is more to me than much fine gold. Brahms is one of the most whistle-able of composers, and my two specifics for a blue Monday are to read Stevenson’s Letters and to whistle all the Brahms themes I can remember."

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Thousand Regrets; Josquin and the Invention of the Power Ballad

Josquin's endgame involved leaving a song, written at age 80, that remained on the charts for decades after his death a year later. It is a song of regret sung in modal harmony on the very edge of being in A minor:

(Performed by The Scholars of London)

The text seems modern. This is not courtly love; not disguised within subtle allusions or mythological masks. This was a common emotion directly expressed. Almost five hundred years ago Josquin invented the power ballad:

Mille regretz de vous abandonner (A thousand regrets at abandoning you)
Et d'eslonger vostre fache amoureuse, (and now longing for your loving face,)
Jay si grand dueil et paine douloureuse, (I feel grand distress and painful melancholy,)
Quon me verra brief mes jours definer. (It seems to me my short days are numbered.

This is a setting that expresses its complexities in musical details. Though it is set in four voices it is a study in trios; a study in incompletenesses. The text is also frequently set out of phase, with more than one set of words or vowel colors sounding at any given time. This creates blur; uncertainty, subtle confusion.

Listen for how the text comes into focus during the setting of "Face amoureuse" (your face) [0:33], an expression that it echoed immediately after it is first sounded; but scored for two different trios.

"Si grand dueil" (Grand distress) is the first expression set in four voices in homophonic rhythm and it cadences in the ancient sound of an open fifth (E--B) doubled at the octave. This sweet moment divides the piece into halves at a most unexpected time within the four-line stanza.

The "painful melancholy" that fills the remainder of the third line is set in duets of parallel sixths in the treble answered by sixths in the bass.

The final line becomes a complex blur of echos, bent motives, repetitions, and finally a four-part cadence repeated three times before ending on a minor chord with a doubled third.

In a generation caught between intervallic thinking and chord progression in the modern sense, Josquin created a song that rang in adaptations and quotations for several generations. He created classic rock in the 1520s.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thinking Theodore Presser; a Regular Guy and his Bear

The Etude Music Magazine (1883-1957) was a significant was a source of support for music teachers and an outlet for composers, teachers and educators for 74 years. In 2003 I created an edition of piano lessons in the grand style originally published in The Etude.

Many people are unaware that the Theodore Presser publishing company developed from The Etude Music Magazine (1883-1957). Those who were aware of this may be surprised to discover that Presser once owned a pet bear, loved flowers, and "was a delight to see" at football games.

Theodore Presser (1848-1925) was a character, and three months after his death in October 1925, the Etude dedicated part of the January 1926 edition to his memory. An article by William Roberts Tilford gives insight into the quirks that made his personality colorful:

"Like most men of large accomplishments he possessed an uncanny capacity for work. During the forty-three years he was engaged in music publishing, no man in his business equalled him in this respect. [...] For years, after a severe day’s labor at his business, he would take home great bundles of work and spend his evenings investigating manuscripts, signing checks, auditing bills, and so on. [...]

"This capacity for work, combined with his great determination and strong will, became an excess in his last days. His best friends and counsellors found it impossible to prevent him from doing things which were obviously injurious and liable to shorten his life. In order to get physical exercise, he persisted in sawing heavy logs, clearly a dangerous exertion for a man of seventy-seven with an uncertain heart. He never rode when he could walk, and only in his very last years could he be persuaded to use the elevator except when a climb was too high. [...]
He was at his office four days before his passing; and only a few hours before his death he was struggling valiantly in behalf of a plan he had to help the teacher of music.

"Many of those who for years had known of the enormous accomplishments of Theodore Presser were surprised when they met him.; and often they would exclaim, 'Is that really Theodore Presser?' This was largely because of his great simplicity. He hated affectation and complexity of any kind. A bombastic person amused him greatly. Few men have ever retained so little of their worldly goods during their lifetime and given away so much. He had a fine home in Germantown [Pennsylvania] adjoining the far more expensive building he erected for retired music teachers. For a man of his means he lived very simply and without ostentation. In his business house he lunched daily with his employees, making little distinction between them as to their position in the business. [...]

"While unostentatious, he was extremely social and dreaded to be without congenial company and companions. A conventional, old fashioned picnic to the woods gave him far more delight than anything that pretended to be formal, and a hike with a group of boys was a special diversion. In a small group he was an extremely animated conversationalist and enjoyed humor immensely. He dreaded public speaking; and although, when inspired, he could make a very excellent talk upon subjects in which he was interested, he had a fear of audiences and frequently confined himself to notes.

"He had a habit of expressing himself in a peculiar and emphatic manner which he understood perfectly himself, but which was often misinterpreted by others. This sometimes led to misunderstandings in later years, and to the sacrifice of friends, which pained him greatly. It thus often became necessary for those who did understand him to interpret his meaning; and this he appreciated greatly if accurate, but detested when it became apparent to him that he was in the least falsely interpreted. [...]

"His love for animals was very great and he looked forward to the end of the day when his little dog would romp joyously to greet him. At different times he possessed many kinds of animals—-crows, parrots, rabbits, pheasants—-and he once acquired a bear which he kept until it became too strong for any domestic confines. He gave the bear away and shortly after the beast was found strangled at the end of his chain. Mr. Presser always insisted that the bear committed suicide because he had lost a good home. He reproached himself for giving the animal to others, who, he feared, had been unkind to it.

"Flowers were a passion with him, and his gardens and greenhouse were a constant source of delight. Every new and rare plant was a treasure. He continually wrote to distant points for new specimens. Once, when returning from a trip to Bermuda, I brought him a small collection of tropical plants. His reception of the plants so overwhelmed him that he quite forgot the donor.

"In sports he retained to his very last days the naive enthusiasm of a child. At a football game he was a delight to see. He frequently attended professional baseball games and his usual inquiry at the end of the day was, 'What’s the score ?' He enjoyed playing games himself and eagerly hunted companions to play with him.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sectional Layout of Poème électronique

Sectional Layout of Poème électronique
by Edgard Varèse

1:[0:27] Gong and [0:43] Transformation of gong rhythm to clave timbre,
2:[0:47] introduction of electronic signal sources; two important countours are introduced: Contour #1 which rises then falls in a curve and Contour #2 which rises.

3:[0:55] Whistling electronic signals sustained with intense envelope motion. This envelope is the motion equivalent of contour #2.
4:[1:09] Quick alternations between noise-like rattles and pitches E-B
5:[1:18] Bsn-like interjection (3+5)
6:[1:23] Rising glissandi articulated three times, roughly F-Ab, using contour #2.

7:[1:37] Two-part texture, cymbal-like noise elements using envelope #2, on top of sustained pitched bass segment E-D-Eb.
8:[1:47] Four articulations followed by faster articulations leading to complex texture ended with contour #2.

9:[1:58] Further development of section 5.
10:[2:02] One glissandi section 6.
11:[2:06] Further development of section 5.

12:[2:13] Rising gesture (uses the E-B fifth with the upper bsn part) with reverb blur; rising gesture is an elongated version of contour #2.

13:[2:30] Introduction of drums, quickly alternating texture culminating in Contour 1. Tapping motive leads into the next section.

14:[3:01] Gongs of section 1 developed.
15:[3:10] Sustained sounds forming harmonies.
16:[3:26] 5 articulations then 3 on pitch G.
17:[3:37] Development of section 15 more motion from envelopes.

18:[3:53] Alternation between filtered tap sounds and rattle, ending with their combination.

19:[4:06] low-voice
20:[4:19] interlude, taps and rattle.
21:[4:25] low-voice
22:[4:42] Sharp sforzandi interruption.

23:[4:46] Low-voice and drum duet; primal.
24:[5:10] Deep texture with scratchy interjections leads to extended silence.

25:[6:14] Sustained texture developed from successive textures accompanied by drums.

26:[7:02] Finale: High voice, Medieval chorus, organ, etc. Clave sound returns,
Two repetitions of the section 6 glissandi. Forceful ending gesture; contour #1 followed by contour #2.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thinking Poème électronique

Fifty years plus and it still sounds bizarre. Also haunting and eloquent. Edgard Varèse wrote Poème électronique for Expo ’58, the trendy identifier for the World’s Fair that year.

In a celebration of futurism, fellow composer Iannis Xenakis designed the Philips Pavilion with 425 speakers couched in strategic places to make sound glide in physical space. Pictures of the pavilion show a curved, stomach-like entrance. Walking through a tube led to a central room where spectators digested the eight minute work. They exited from the other side. They were not flushed.

The music remains. It is constructed of complexity, built in a vast network of cross-reference and transformation. It is the Finnegan’s Wake of electronica. It repays another listening.

Listen as the rhythm of ancient gong sound is transformed into a percussive clave sound having a related rhythm. The electronic sounds that follow are a contrast. They are the sonic equivalent of drive-in theaters, of pink flamingos. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. They should.

Float around within this palette of distinct and vivid sounds, some noises some pitches. Many events are focused as isolated textures. Compare them. They talk with one another.

Duets become increasingly important components as the piece progresses. The primal sounding interaction between drums and low voice, and the duet of sustained sounds and drums occupies a large portion of the closing. The procession of textures is further intensified by the new sources heard well into the finale: high-pitched singing, a medieval sounding chorus, an organ.

Fifty years in a future more suburban than Varèse imagined have not tamed his revelation:

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Mysterious Art of Oscillation; William Walton's Second Bagatelle for Guitar

There is something irresistible in music which takes its time; which oscillates back and forth. Erik Satie's Gymnopédies come to mind, as does "There is no Rose" from the Ceremony of Carols. But also high on that list is the second bagatelle from William Walton's set of five that were written for Julian Bream in the early 1970s:

The ringing "D" and "A" that alternate on each downbeat are a foundation against which the predominantly major harmonies on the second beat rub, creating frictions that move with a logic derived from thinking guitar.

The metric world is built from dance; and it grows gradually in sections built from chords, then arpeggios, and finally independent melody.

The opening stanza articulates four sets of four-bar phrases in clean chords.
A repetition of this structure [0:30] moves toward the melodic by amplifying the chordal structure in arpeggios.

The third stanza [0:59] introduces melody. There is an exaggerated upbeat as the tune arrives and this section is doubled; twice as long as each of the prior stanzas. The narrative quality of the tune is given time to work on us.

The fourth stanza [1:56] echos the third with tasty textural variants. At the close of the section the music shifts into cadenza modality to close with rising lines, a spray of harmonics, and a tambora effect that rings.

The seamless edit of this video, cut from a studio performance where we levitate around Bream, to the footage of Bream playing for Walton on the remote Italian island of Ischia, located in the Gulf of Naples, is priceless.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

First of the Few and the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue by William Walton

"The First of the Few" was a British wartime film from 1942 about the creation of the Spitfire aircraft and the superhuman production efforts led by its designer R. J. Michell. William Walton wrote the score for the movie and later extracted the "Spitfire Prelude and Fugue" from the cues:

The prelude was developed from the music for the opening credits of the film. Broadly stated fanfares and a lyrical escalation prepare a march that begins at [0:45]. The concert version extends the march by redeveloping the fanfare music as a transition, and it does not have the fade away used in the film.

The fugue appears near the end of the movie where it is used as a classic device for intensification. At [1:26:00] everyone is looking for Mitchell but even his wife is unsure of his whereabouts. He has gone to see a doctor [1:26:16] and discovers that his health has been compromised. "I'm afraid your a rather sick man, Mr. Mitchell." says his doctor. Mitchell learns that if he rests he will survive, but if he continues to work he will live only another 6 or 8 months.

[1:27:49] Mitchell resurfaces at work. He is told that "the plane needs to be ready in 12 months: that's all the time we can give you."

"It will be ready in 8 months," he says over the fugue theme, "because that is all the time I can give to you."

The fugue spins in six-bar phrases and gathers momentum. There is a brief sequential episode [1:28:52] and then the subject returns in an intensification where scenes from the factory are overlaid on images of Mitchell's face.

A surprising feature of the concert-version fugue is a lyrical centerpiece for solo violin. This music was woven in from a musical cue in a powerful central scene that appears in the midst of the struggles to complete the spitfire in the film.

Mitchell enters a darkened room [1:29:51], and opens a bay window. The violin interlude voices his sacrifices. He looks out the window and listens to the birds. His wife comes in the room and the music becomes suspended in their conversation.

They talk, gradually, about his imminent death, and Mitchell decides to rest. But he glances down [1:33:58] at a newspaper headline: "German Bombers Wipe Out Spanish Town." The lyrical music begins again, and he moves forward, working at full speed.

The fugue is reprised [1:34:36]. Elements of the march played during the opening credits are fused into the fugue, until the march and fugue are combined in counterpoint. The plane is pushed onto the runway.

The music was shaped carefully by ideas from the film and it is wonderful to hear how, when heard as an independent concert piece, the music whispers of its origins.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Spirits of the Dead City; Elizabeth Hurley in Aria 1987

“Glück, das mir verblieb” is one of the great love songs of the operatic literature but it is not expressed as love between the two characters who sing it. Paul loves Maria his wife who has died, not Marietta, who is singing, in spite of a strong resemblance to his wife. Marietta does not love Paul, she is self-absorbed; just beginning to bloom.

How can we blame Bruce Beresford, who wrote and directed a segment based on this music for the film “Aria” in 1987, for wanting to express a more direct kind of love? The movie is a collage of ten operatic arias interpreted by ten different directors who were free to break from any traditional associations, or even break from any similarity to plots from the operas themselves.

He was fortunate to have the screen debut of Elizabeth Hurley who undresses during the song. Peter Birch plays her counterpart. It is tough to see the traditional names “Paul” and “Marietta” assigned to them in the credits, their portrayal has nothing to do with either of these operatic characters.

Hurley seemed to be Marietta in life more than in this film. Her website says that she entered a ballet boarding school at age twelve. Folks remember that she was the one to whom Hugh Grant was romantically attached when he was charged with soliciting the services of a female prostitute in 1995.

I wish Beresford chose not to have the actors lip-sync. They make simple German seem like Vulcan language. But more than the mismatched language correspondences, the lack of musical breathing is an obstacle.

Still, once one gets past these flaws, the juxtaposition of the lovers with breathtaking images of Bruges develops connection between the lovers and the city in a way that is impossible in a staging:

Glück, das mir verblieb, (Joy, sent from above,)
rück zu mir, mein treues Lieb. (Hold me close, my true love.)
Abend sinkt im Hag (Darkness ends the day)
bist mir Licht und Tag. (You will light my way.)
Bange pochet Herz an Herz (Fear is throbbing in our hearts)
Hoffnung schwingt sich himmelwärts. (Hope itself soars heavenward.)

Interlude [1:23]:
Wie wahr, ein traurig Lied. (How true, a sad song.)

Das Lied vom treuen Lieb, (The song of a true beloved,)
das sterben muss. (who must die soon.)

Welche Mühen Sie? (What troubles You?)

Ich kenne das Lied. (I know the song.)
Ich hört es oft in jungen, (I heard it often in younger,)
in schöneren Tagen. (in better days.)

At [2:37] Beresford cuts away to images of bridges and reflections. Slowly undulating water, empty squares, white birds. Bruges: city of melancholy charms.

Es hat noch eine Strophe-- (It has yet another verse--)
weiß ich sie noch? (Do I know it still?)

Second Stanza [3:07]:

Naht auch Sorge trüb, (Joyful days may flee,)
rück zu mir, mein treues Lieb. (Hold me close, my faithful love.)

[Paul and Marietta:]
Neig dein blaß Gesicht (Time will pass away)
Sterben trennt uns nicht. (But true love will stay.)
Mußt du einmal von mir gehn, (Though we have to part in pain,)
glaub, es gibt ein Aufersteh’n. (Believe, there is an afterlife.)

Aufersteh'n is a powerful word. It is the first word in the poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock that was used by Mahler for the finale of his second symphony. It is often translated as “resurrection;” it need not be.

As the word "Aufersteh'n" fades so do the characters themselves [4:13].

Statues and quietly falling snow--white as birds--cadence the images from The Dead City. Beresford has captured the resonance of present and past in Bruges.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Joy, sent from above;" a song of complicated love from Die Tote Stadt

"Glück, das mir verblieb" (joy, sent from above) is a song of complex and broken love in the opera "Die Tote Stadt" (The Dead City) by Erich Korngold (1897-1957).

The central character, Paul, has chosen to identify with the city of Bruges; an old city perched on the northern tip of Belgium; cold and desolate. Bruges has an affluent past but only ghosts seem to remain: bridges, statues, monuments and houses.

These structures are more beautiful, more ornate, more carefully crafted than anything practical requires. They speak of finding and expressing poetry in life and leaving that poetry behind, surrendered but never abandoned.

Maria, who was Paul’s wife, lit the way for him. He cannot reconcile her death. He grieves by holding her memory and associating her with the city itself. Why? This seems unhealthy. Release her and move on. This is the advice that Paul gets from his friend Frank. Frank is sensible.

Paul has transformed Maria’s death into the poetry of his own life. Paul believes his love with Maria is eternal. He does not articulate how this whole thing will work. That is why I like him. His conviction does not have the confidence of religion. Is he delusional? Yes and no.

Every day he walks the streets of Bruges and sees Maria metaphorically in the visual beauty left virtually abandoned all around him. One day Paul believes that Maria has returned to him. He sees her during one of his walks. Is he delusional? Yes and no.

A young dancer has randomly found her way to Bruges. She is wearing clothes that look like Maria’s and she is breathtakingly beautiful. She is young. She spins her life from instant fascination. No one can resist her. Men will give her anything. Anything is possible.

Did they speak during Paul’s walk? How is it that she shows up at his house? Is it just coincidence?

In "Die Tote Stadt" we aren’t given answers. But she takes Maria’s scarf from Paul and wears it playfully, admiring how it looks in the mirror. She can incorporate elements and motives from Maria’s life because her own life is only beginning to be composed.

Paul calls her Maria. “No,” she corrects, “I am Marietta.” Paul will not relent. In a portrait, Maria plays the lute. Paul hands Marietta the lute. “Are you,” she asks, “one of those old master painters?” This part of Paul’s life is not a symbol in her own life but is a motive from his.

Marietta doesn’t play the lute but does offer to sing a song. The song is “Glück, das mir verblieb.” She calls it a sad song and says she doesn’t know why she likes it because she is not often a sad person and doesn’t enjoy being sad. She is just a kid, in the transition before life becomes shaped by loss and pain and unspeakable joys.

The music is made from practically nothing:

In this production there is a huge Edwardian upright against the wall of the room where Marietta and Paul interact. When Angela Denoke as Marietta offers to sing this sad song, a young boy enters, pauses with the slightest of bows, then sits down with his back to the camera as an actor accompanist. Denoke shuffles the pages of the sheetmusic in her hands and holds them in front of her as she sings the first verse.

To Marietta this is a sad and lovely song. To Paul it is, and was, his life.

Between verses the song is magically suspended, as songs are not supposed to be--it is taken out of time. It is delayed while Paul reflects on the situation [1:31].

Wie wahr, ein traurig Lied. (How true, a sad song.)

Das Lied vom treuen Lieb, (The song of a true beloved,)
das sterben muss. (who must die soon.)

Welche Mühen Sie? (What troubles You?)

Ich kenne das Lied. (I know the song.)
Ich hört es oft in jungen, (I heard it often in younger,)
in schöneren Tagen. (in better days.)

Es hat noch eine Strophe-- (It has yet another verse--)
weiß ich sie noch? (Do I know it still?)

This is opera at its best—-the magnification of emotion outside of time.

While the great tenor Torsten Kerl begins the second verse, Marietta is frantically looking for the verse in her music and when she finds it joins him for the final four lines.

“Glück, das mir verblieb” is one of the great love songs of the operatic literature. How can one resist the idea that it is not expressed as love between two characters? Paul loves Maria, not Marietta for all her eroticism. Marietta does not love Paul, she is self-absorbed; just beginning to bloom.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tippett Sonata for Four Horns; in October Light by John Gardner

Michael Tippett (1905-1998) wrote his Sonata for Four Horns in 1955 for the Dennis Brain Quartet. The Sonata was recorded by the Barry Tuckwell Horn Quartet on an infamous recording released by ARGO where it was paired with Tippett's second symphony.

On the cover of that album, taken by Axel Poignant (1906-1986), Tippett is sitting on a couch looking over at us. He is ready to either scowl or laugh. It is an expression familiar from his music.

Near the end of John Gardner's novel "October Light," written in 1976, a peripheral character named Terence Parks is listening to this recording of the Tippett Sonata. It is a section called "Terence on Pure and Subservient Art:"

"Terence Parks sat in the corner chair in the green living room of his parents’ house, . . . listening to the Tippett Sonata for Four Horns and trying to think, or rather struggling with a chaos of old and new feelings, in a sense old and new ideas. [...]."

"Nothing in his father’s large record collection was more familiar to Terence than the Tippett Sonata: happy music, he’d always thought; but tonight it had dark implications he’d never before noticed. Not that the music wasn’t happy even now—in general, at least—and not that he wasn’t himself feeling something like happiness, or at any rate feeling stirred up, uplifted by excitement—though at the same time fearful. Even talking with Margie last night he hadn’t worked out the exact way to say it, but he was onto something. He had made, or perhaps was on the verge of making, a discovery. It had to do, it seemed to him now, with walking in the rain with Margie Phelps, and with the mad old man’s shotgun, and with music. [...]

"He closed his eyes, listening to the Tippett and summoning up her image, a light, still core in a swirl of change, chaos and dissonance, leaping darkness." [...]

"Terence had listened to the Tippett often. In the beginning he couldn’t have said why except, of course, that it was for horns, and he was a hornist. It was not 'thrilling' or in the usual sense 'beautiful' or any of the things that make particular pieces 'universally appealing,' as his teacher at school would say [...] It was a piece to daydream by—-or to remember by, as he was remembering now (but with unusual intensity), his consciousness closed like a fist around last night. And also the music had been for him a kind of puzzle, one he was reworking now, this moment.

"When he had first begun to listen to it, once having gotten past his interest in the tone, the hurry of sixteenth notes, he had asked himself what it was that the music reminded him of—-the first movement, for instance:

(Live performance by the Cambridge University Horn Quartet)

with its medieval opening and surprisingly quick flight from any trace of the medieval, a hustle-bustle of sweetly dissonant liquid sounds, sometimes such a flurry that you’d swear there were dozens of horns, not just four-—and he’d tried various ideas: the idea that the image was of threatening apes, harmless ones, small ones, chittering and flapping unbelligerent arms in a brightly lit jungle; the idea that the picture was of children at the beach in sped-up motion. [...]

"Then it had come to him as a startling revelation—-though he couldn’t explain even to his horn teacher Andre Speyer why it was that he found the discovery startling—-that the music meant nothing at all but what it was: panting, puffing, comically hurrying French horns.

"That had been, ever since—until tonight—-what he saw when he closed his eyes and listened: horns, sometimes horn players, but mainly horn sounds, the very nature of horn sounds, puffing, hurrying, getting in each other’s way yet in wonderful agreement finally, as if by accident. Sometimes, listening, he would smile, and his father would say quizzically, “What’s with you?” It was the same when he listened to the other movements: What he saw was French horns, that is, the music. The moods changed, things happened, but only to French horns, French horn sounds.

There was a four-note theme in the second movement [1:00] that sounded like “Oh When the Saints,” a theme that shifted from key to key, sung with great confidence by a solo horn, answered by a kind of scornful gibberish from the second, third, and fourth, as if the first horn’s opinion was ridiculous and they knew what they knew.

"Or the slow movement: As if they’d finally stopped and thought it out, the horns played together, a three-note broken chord several times repeated, and then the first horn taking off as if at the suggestion of the broken chord and flying like a gull—except not like a gull, nothing like that, flying like only a solo French horn. Now the flying solo became the others’ suggestion and the chord began to undulate, and all four horns together were saying something, almost words, first a mournful sound like Maybe and then later a desperate Oh yes I think so, except to give it words was to change it utterly: it was exactly what it was, as clear as day—or a moonlit lake where strange creatures lurk—-and nothing could describe it but itself. It wasn’t sad, the slow movement; only troubled, hesitant, exactly as he often felt himself.

"Then came—-and he would sometimes laugh aloud—-the final, fast movement. Though the slow movement’s question had never quite been answered, all the threat was still there, the fast movement started with absurd self-confidence, with some huffings and puffings, and then the first horn set off with delightful bravado, like a fat man on skates who hadn’t skated in years (but not like a fat man on skates, like nothing but itself), Woo-woo-woo-woops! and the spectator horns laughed tiggledy-tiggledy-tiggledy!, or that was vaguely the idea—every slightly wrong chord, every swoop, every hand-stop changed everything completely. [...] It was impossible to say what, precisely, he meant.

"Terence’s stomach was suddenly all butterflies, as if something terrible were about to happen, some great evil, some monster in the music, about to emerge. Whiffle-whiffle-whiffle! went the second, third, and fourth, humorous but threatening, perceptibly malevolent, the tip of a dangerous iceberg. The first horn sailed over them, oblivious as a child or fool, in an entirely wrong key.

"Last night Terence had explained his theory, as he’d had it worked out then, to Margie Phelps, realizing as he talked that he was talking about her—-the scent of her, the way her hands moved, the way she walked just a little pigeon-toed (he wouldn’t have her walk any other way), unique as a snowflake and, in Terence’s eyes, infinitely more beautiful. 'I mean, everything should be what it is,' he’d said, 'you know? Absolutely free.'

"With a solemn expression she’d looked up at his face—-she’d been watching the ground as he told her all this, not speaking except now and then to ask a question: 'How do you think of things like that?' she’d said. 'I could think for a million years and never come up with it!' Only now, in retrospect, was he fully aware of the darkness all around them and swirling up within them, two innocents chattering, while the old man schemed murder and Aunt Estelle, in the car, sat trembling.

"Margie’s words, her perfectly serious expression, had transformed him, given him value and potential. So it had seemed to him and seemed to him now. She had seen him, seen his seeing of the music, and he had therefore seen himself.

"Something stirred in the music, darting from dark place to dark place. His eyes snapped open. Had he slept for an instant? For an instant at most; yet he seemed to have dreamed of the suicide—-the story his aunt had told him years ago of the young man hanging calm as stone in his attic, in the house below him, Mozart. In the dream—or perhaps inside Tippett’s music—-Terence had stared at the faceless, still figure and had realized someone was in terrible danger, drifting out of key, out of orbit toward nothingness, toward emptiness and itself. Margie?, he wondered in brief panic. Ed Thomas? Aunt Estelle? For a split second he understood everything, life’s monstrosity and beauty. Then he was listening to the horns again.

"His father, on the couch, opened the center-page foldout and looked at it without interest, then raised his eyes and looked at Terence. 'What’s the matter?' he said, grinning.

" 'Nothing,' Terence said, and blushed."

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Music within The Wreckage of Agathon by John Gardner

Agathon was a "famous and respected" Athenian Seer in ancient Sparta ruled by the tyrant Lykourgos. Agathon became "the foulest man alive, by any reasonable standard: a maker of suggestions to ugly fat old cleaning ladies, a midnight prowler in the most disgusting parts of town. . . and lived, whenever his onion patch had nothing in it but burdocks and brambles, by foraging in the garbage tubs behind houses."

For no immediate reason, he was led away to prison, and Demodokos, a follower that he nicknamed Peeker, accompanied him with his jug. (Peeker: "Was it my fault that he couldn't carry his own damn jug? . . . I may be an old man myself sometime, thought I doubt it. 'All right,' I screamed, 'all right!' So they found out I was his follower, and put me with him in the cell.") They coexisted in a rat-infested prison cell—"a sprawling gray-stone mass of buildings filled with sickness and misery, honeycombed with windows like bugs' holes, and smoking here and there, day and night, like a garbage dump."

Agathon feels he has been "disloyal to everything [he] knows." He abandoned his wife and children, his city, his art."

In "The Wreckage of Agathon," by John Gardner we find another passage of ancient music overheard, and like Grendel, who listens unobserved and is utterly transformed, Agathon listens “clinging to the ledges [of her window on] the polished stone by [his] fingertips and toes.”

“Tuka sat, facing away from me, and her movements, as she played, were not like those I saw when she played for an audience: it was as if, now, she was inside the music, moving only as the music moved, swaying for an instant, hovering, sometimes touching the dark wood beam of the harp with her face as though the harp, too, knew the secret. I was torn by contradictory emotions, like the music, and, like the music, I turned them over and over, as if by feeling them intensely, not with my mind but with my body, I might grasp them. I felt outside time, as if all things merely temporal, coldly dianoetic, were of no importance.”

The sound of secrets. A Dionysian image grasped by the body outside of time. Harpists do that sort of thing. Agathon hears music intended for practicing, for communing with sound and the harp itself; as a voyeur, as an outsider.

In prison he remains an outsider who transcribes his prior world onto scrolls. He writes of his memories.

Agathon continued to listen: "the music moving in my chest like wind, like annulate waves, the cold night air moving softly across my skin, until my fingertips and toes ached from clinging, and I climbed back down. When I saw her by daylight it was as if what had happened in the night were unreal. The girl I had seen at her harp might easily have been anyone or no one, a spirit, but this daylit girl was Tuka, my friend, almost sister."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Quick Tour through Twinkle; Thoughts on Mozart's Variations on Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star

Mozart's twelve variations on "Ah vous dirais-je, Maman" K. 265/300e are a showcase of compositional styles:

The theme is presented in a stately and spare two-voice scoring that sings. Then the collection bursts into motion with five variations that group together through the development of etude figuration and textural oscillation.

The patterning is systematic. The 16th note figuration in the first variation [0:34] is played by the right-hand; the second variation [1:03] by the left-hand.
Variations 3 and 4 spin slower, using a triplet motor, but follow the pattern; triplets in the third variation [1:33] played by the right-hand, then by the left in variation 4 [2:01].

The pattern is broken [2:35]. Mozart compresses the pattern into a single variation of immediate dialog between the hands. The fifth variation expresses humor in purely sonic context.

The broken pattern is a large-scale cadence to a textural process that links the first five variations into a larger stanza.

The second stanza of Mozart's Variations is a gallery of topics.

Variation VI [3:02] is like an eighteenth-century quickstep with figuration that sounds like the drums on wipeout by the Safaris. Eccentric perhaps, but this movement is a bridge from the systematic into a new collection of attitudes.

Variation VII [3:29] is set in the brilliant style with rockets balanced by throws. The broken chords at the cadences return in the figuration of the tenth variation and in modified form in the final cadence of the work.

The learned style is explored in the next two variations, first [3:57] with an unaccompanied motive in the parallel minor answered in the subdominant. A modified bass entry on the dominant balances harmonic fields. An austere and graceful dancing fills these lines which seem to continually fall, weighing against quick-rising motives.

Variation IX [4:33] seems a variation of the prior variation: it dances on the surface, losing its learned in rustic temptations.

Variation X [4:59] is an etude for left-hand crossing, balancing touch, and the challenge of matching voicings between the hands.

A gorgeous essay in the singing style follows [5:26]. The gentle syncopated background and the orchestral shifting among registers can be made unforgettable. The figure that opens the second half of the variation [6:05] also appears(transposed to G) in measure 9 of the Andante of his piano sonata K. 283.

The final variation [6:53] introduces music in 3/4 time. Trills on the third beat emphasize the new meter. A playful passage in doubled 16ths [7:14] momentarily suspends the strong dance impulse, but it re-emerges with clever third-beat hiccups four measures before the return.

A short cadenza samples textures from several variations to bring the set to a close.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Benno Moiseiwitsch; Pianist of the Grand Style

“The critics are occasionally pleased to compliment a pianist by saying that he plays in the grand style. Exactly what do they mean by that phrase? In the broadest sense, they mean a style of playing which penetrates deeper than the physical conquering of the piano. It concerns itself with the release of music.” Benno Moiseiwitsch

Benno Moiseiwitsch played in the “grand style.” He also lived his life by those ideals, leaving a legacy that is human and lasting, inspiring and sincere. A modest and self-effacing personality offstage, he generated extraordinary energy, excitement and glamour in concerts hall worldwide. Photographs radiate his sense of ease, and he maintained a distinctive calmness while performing. Yet, his recordings project music that is full of passion, inner-voices balanced with an orchestral depth, and lyrical lines that attract and reveal and surprise.

He was born in a suburb south of the Russian seaport of Odessa in 1890. His love of music, and aptitude for learning the piano lead him to the Imperial School of Music where he studied music along with general educational courses as a boy. At the age of nine he was awarded the Rubinstein Prize, a scholarship sponsored by the government to one student at a time for the duration of their studies. He outgrew the musical life at the Imperial School, and left in 1905 for a new start in England. Benno then followed the recommendation of his new teachers to fully develop his unique musical personality by seeking the best training available anywhere: to audition for study in Vienna with Theodore Leschetizky.

The transition between the nineteenth and twentieth century was dominated by the pupils of Franz Liszt and Theodore Leschetizky. Leschetizky studied with Czerny who studied with Beethoven. This direct lineage was handed down directly to Moiseiwitsch, and also to other significant pianists who studied with Leschetizky like Paderewski, Schnabel and Gabrilovitch. Moiseiwitsch later commented of his teacher that “no two pupils played the same piece in exactly the same way, but all his teaching was grounded in fundamental beauty of tone and emphasis on expressive color. Individuality, not method, made him the wonderful teacher he was. He turned what accomplishment I had into a love for the piano.”

In 1910, Moiseiwitsch’s official debut took place in London, after which he built an international career from a prolific performing and recording schedule. He married the Australian violinist Daisy Kennedy in 1914, but as happens all too often when active musicians marry, frequent professional separation led to legal separation and divorce after ten years. Moiseiwitsch remarried in 1929, having fallen in love with Anita Gensburger, the daughter of a prosperous Franco-Russian family living in Shanghai.

His career brought him in contact with most significant musical personalities of his day, but his bond was particularly strong with Sergei Rachmaninoff, and the two often spent informal time together razzing one another. Moiseiwitsch biographer Lawson Cook recalled that, “Moiseiwitsch was fascinated by Rachmaninoff’s response to humor, recalling that he would toss his head back, open his mouth wide, and wrinkles would form around his eyes. Tears would stream down his face, but he never made a sound!” Rachmaninoff expressed on more than one occasion that he considered many Moiseiwitsch recordings of his music better than his own.

Moiseiwitsch became a British subject in 1937, and when war broke out, gave an endless succession of concerts to help develop the Russian War Fund. Sir Winston and Lady Churchill were deeply touched by his artistry, and often invited he and Anita to dinners, informal performances, (Churchill’s favorite request was reported to be the Chopin Ballade No.3 in Ab Major. The middle section inspired in him the image of a galloping horse.) and perhaps most entertainingly, Moiseiwitsch became Churchill’s favorite Bridge partner.

Benno Moiseiwitsch died in 1963, active performing and touring until the very end of life. A premeir representative of the early century’s golden age of pianism, he helped to define pianistic eloquence itself. The “grand style” is increasingly studied by pianists today, who have found artistic integrity and love of sound in its recordings.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sunday night television old-school. William Schuman on What's My Line.

On Sunday evening, September 30, 1962 during the 12th season of its 17-year run on CBS, American composer William Schuman (1910-1992) was correctly identified on "What's My Line." Schuman had been named the first president of Lincoln Center the year earlier, and his 8th symphony was to be premiered, with Leonard Bernstein conducting, the following Thursday, October 4:

The first segment introduces the four panelists, who will each ask questions designed to identify a mystery guest. Part of the charm of the show was that each panelist was introduced while walking onto the set, and they often took bows. Veteran panelist Dorothy Kilgallen (1913-1965) was introduced first. She was a journalist best known for her column "The Voice of Broadway." Kilgallen introduced Martin Gabel (1912-1986), though her accent makes his name sound more like "Morton." Known primarily as an actor, he introduced his wife, Arlene Francis (1907-2001), without "fulsome adjectives." Francis was an actress who was a regular on this show. Finally, Bennett Cerf (1898-1971), who was co-founder of Random House publishers. Cerf riffs on the Mariner 2 space probe, which had been launched by NASA about a month earlier, to introduce host John Charles Daly (1913-1991). Schuman was considered to be recognizable so the panel was asked to put on blindfolds [2:00]. The guys wear standards, but Francis looks like an aviator and Kilgallen looks ready to go swimming. Schuman signs in on a chalkboard [2:41]. Asked if he is familiar with the score-keeping system he says, "vaguely." Well, ten responses of "no" to questions from the panelists before he is identified and Schuman "wins." Schuman's "line" is shown to the audience [3:10]: "Composer and President of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (New York City)." Francis [4:23] asks him a question that requires a "small conference:" "Are you a person behind the scenes rather than a performer yourself?" When Daley leans in [4:34] he looks ready to kiss Schuman. "He doesn't know," quips Francis during the conference, "whether he's back or front." "Four down six to go." "How about music?" asks Kilgallen [5:03]. "How about it?" replies Schuman, "what's the question?" "Are you Leonard Bernstein?" "I'm his friend." [5:48] Francis asks, "would you be Mr. Bing?" Rudolf Bing (1902-1997)was general manager of the Met at the time of this production. "I'm his friend." "Everybody's friend, this fella..." says Francis in the background. Gabel pins him to Lincoln Center [6:32]: "Are you a managing director of the new Lincoln Center?" Schuman responds that: "You'd have to rephrase the question but there is an element of truth in it." The best line of the episode [6:57] is the response by Gabel: "We are all seeking truth here, sir!" Ah, the days of gallantry. But then things fall apart and the questions become unfocused. All ten "no" answers have been given, none are left. Suddenly Cerf nails it [7:35]: "Is it Mr. Schuman?" After the buzz cools something even more remarkable for prime-time network television. The sentence [8:37]: "I'm happy too, for you sir, that your eighth symphony is to be performed this Thursday." Imagine. The opening movement of the symphony is a dark and enchanting sound world of obsession and slow unfoldings. "We are all seeking truth here, sir!" Had they played the opening of this symphony no questions would have been required to identify Schuman:

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Grendel and the Shaper's Harp

Cotton Vitellius A. xv. is a collection of handwritten manuscripts complied into two books and ultimately bound together in the 17th century to rest in the British Library. The second of these books contains five otherwise unrelated items: between the third, which is "Alexander's Letter to Aristotle" and "Judith," which is the fifth item, is the only surviving copy of Beowulf.

One of the earliest and most significant poems in the alliterative style, Beowulf tells of a hero who comes to rid Hrothgar's kingdom of a monster named Grendel. John Gardner (1933-1982) wrote a book that tells this epic story from the monster's prospective.

Many readers encounter John Gardner, as I did, through his book "Grendel."

Grendel is cast by Gardner as a monster with a sense the absurd and a rough sense of humor.

A nihilist by (from) nature, Grendel is suddenly struck by deep musical experience: he overhears an incredible series of performances, and improvisations in the epic performance tradition that would have led, much later, to the written notation of the Beowulf text itself. We are allowed to imagine the formation of the surviving text, in a context that emphasizes its origin in song.

Grendel, while hiding, hears the blind shaper singing:

"with the harp behind him," wrote Gardner, "twisting together like sailors' ropes the bits and pieces of the best old songs."

This is the oral tradition at work. Grendel overhears the legend of his own unnatural death and finds a strange beauty in it. The shaper sang;

"of an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light. And I, Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect. The terrible race God cursed.

"I believed him. Such was the power of the shaper’s harp!”

Grendel is convinced by this musical inevitability and yet knows that it is is lies; most of it anyway. How can this be? This is not the supernatural power of music used by Orpheus to control nature, but instead the power of music to resonate (in)human nature.

Grendel ponders:

“If the ideas of art were beautiful that was art’s fault, not the shaper’s. A blind selector, almost mindless: a bird. Did they murder each other more gently because in the woods sweet songbirds sang?

"Yet I wasn’t satisfied. His fingers picked infallibly, as if moved by something beyond his power, and the words stitched together out of ancient songs, the scenes interwoven out of dreary tales, made a vision without seams, an image of himself yet not-himself”

The transformative power of music, the ability to create "a vision without seams, an image of himself yet not-himself," is like the symbolic dream-image of Nietzsche in section 5 of "The Birth of Tragedy" played on Wallace Steven's "Blue Guitar."

Friday, September 3, 2010

Vitruvius; Musical Training to Tune Catapults

In this image from an edition of his book published in 1684, the Roman engineer Vitruvuis (c.80 BC-c.15 BC) presents his book "De Architectura" to Augustus. The image imagines the very moment in which Vitruvius became a legend, author of a book widely read for more than 700 years.

In the opening of "De Architectura" Vitruvuis indicates which subjects and skills should be acquired by architects. Among them is the study of music.

Musical training has a very practical application:

"Music, also, the architect ought to understand so that he may have knowledge of the canonical and mathematical theory, and besides be able to tune ballistae, catapultae, and scorpiones to the proper key. For to the right and left in the beams are the holes in the frames through which the strings of twisted sinew are stretched by means of windlasses and bars, and these strings must not be clamped and made fast until they give the same correct note to the ear of the skilled workman. For the arms thrust through those stretched strings must, on being let go, strike their blow together at the same moment; but if they are not in unison, they will prevent the course of projectiles from being straight."

Tuning perfect unisons requires that one can hear the absence of beats. This is a skill that becomes much easier after having musical training. One also imagines that the specific pitch of the strings was also important as a gauge of the correct tension of those massive strings. People are going to hurt if the strings are stretched to the point of breaking!

For the concept of using musical skills as a means of destruction one must thank a Roman.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

John Gardner on Mahler 5

John Gardner (1933-1982) wrote about music as an insider. He experienced first-hand the powerful sense of community created through performance of music in common circumstances. Musicians and musical thought permeate his work, and are used with currency and force in the webs of interlinked and associated ideas that invigorate so much of his fiction. These musical encounters and meditations are consistent and powerful, poetic and vast.

The first story in his collection called "The Art of Living," is called "Nimram." In it, a conductor named Benjamin Nimram is sitting next to a sixteen-year-old girl who is terminally ill. They are flying into O'Hare airport and the following night Nimram will conduct the Chicago Symphony. The girl and her parents buy tickets at the last minute and drive in from La Grange. Because they arrive late, "after the Water music, with which he had opened the program." Gardner intensifies the experience in a single, long paragraph, cutting across it to end the story with three short gestures like staccato tapping:

"She had never before seen a Mahler orchestra—nine French horns, wave on wave of violins and cellos, a whole long row of gleaming trumpets, brighter than welders’ lights, another of trombones, two rows of basses, four harps. It was awesome, almost frightening. It filled the vast stage from wingtip to wingtip like some monstrous black creature too enormous to fly, guarding the ground with its head thrust forward—the light-drenched, empty podium. When the last of the enlarged orchestra was assembled and the newcomers had tuned, the houselights dimmed, and as if at some signal invisible to commoners, the people below her began to clap, then the people all around her. Now she too was clapping, her mother and father clapping loudly beside her, the roar of applause growing louder and deeper, drawing the conductor toward the light. He came like a panther, dignified yet jubilant, flashing his teeth in a smile, waving at the orchestra with both long arms. He shook hands with the concertmaster, bounded to the podium—-light shot off his hair—-turned to the audience and bowed with his arms stretched wide, then straightened, chin high, as if revelling in their pleasure and miraculous faith in him. Then he turned, threw open the score—-the applause sank away—-and for a moment studied it like a man reading dials and gauges of infinite complexity. He picked up his baton; they lifted their instruments. He threw back his shoulders and raised both hands till they were level with his shoulders, where he held them still, as if casting a spell on his army of musicians, all motionless as a crowd in suspended animation, the breathless dead of the whole world’s history, awaiting the impossible. And then his right hand moved—-nothing much, almost playful—-and the trumpet-call began, a kind of warning both to the auditorium, tier on tier of shadowy white faces rising in the dark, and to the still orchestra bathed in light. Now his left hand moved and the orchestra stirred, tentative at first, but presaging such an awakening as she’d never before dreamed of. Then something new began, all that wide valley of orchestra playing, calm, serene, a vast sweep of music as smooth and sharp edged as an enormous scythe—-she had never in her life heard a sound so broad, as if all of humanity, living and dead, had come together for one grand onslaught. The sound ran, gathering its strength, along the ground, building in intensity, full of doubt, even terror, but also fury, and then—amazingly, quite easily—lifted. She pressed her father’s hand as Benjamin Nimram, last night, had pressed hers.

Her mother leaned toward her, tilting like a tree in high wind. 'Are you sure that’s him? she asked.

'Of course it is,' she said.

Sternly, the man behind them cleared his throat."

Sir George Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, 1986.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Thinking September with Tchaikovsky; the Summers farewell

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.

The editor chose subtitles that set the mood for each month. September was inspired by the hunt. An additional epigraph was given based on a phrase from a poem by Pushkin:

"It is time!
The horns are sounding!
The hunters in their hunting dress are mounted on their horses;
in early dawn the borzois are jumping."

September is set in fanfares and blazing sound.

The theme appears first in the bass. Its excitement is set in conflicts: measures cast in triplets alternate with measures in duple rhythms. Harmonies in inversion surprise where one would expect to hear root position. "It is time," says the poem, and this is music in motion.

A restatement is given with the melody set an octave higher [0:15]. An E-flat surprises us with bright augmented color in the left-hand that remains no less startling as it resolves to D. Energy scatters and reforms as the hands are set against one another [0:22]. One final octave transformation leads the melody into a grand fanfare [0:32] that is also restated [0:38] before culminating in a passage of reflections.

The central section of September [0:58] is more development than other central sections we have heard over the last several months. It allows the triplet gestures to be placed together in longer strings, first heard as a bass passage [1:14] and later as melodic figuration [1:18].

The final section [1:44] is an echo of the first modified only for the final two chords. September is focused, deliberate, and intensely active.

"It is now September," wrote English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626), "and the sunne begins to fall much from his height, the medowes are left bare, by the mouthes of hungary cattell."

His entry, from "The Twelve Moneths," talks of preparations: "Paper, pen & inke are much in request [...] Coales and wood make toward the chimney...In briefe, I thus conclude of it, I hold it the Winters forewarning, and the Summers farewell. Adieu."
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...