Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Burgess on Mozart; Anxiety during Peaceful Times

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

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

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

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

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

Burgess captures the spirit of the music itself:

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

Monday, November 29, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Anthony Burgess On Mozart; Celestial Watercooler Conversations

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

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

It does not seem easy to read."

Meaning it is Stendhalian, Read it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

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

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

Saturday, November 13, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bach and a Remembrance of Miracles

Bach felt comfortable with miracles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 8, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Nearer to Mozart with Brahms in 1891

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

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

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

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

[Thomas Friedli & Quartet Sine Nomine]

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

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Elizabeth Parcells and Shéhérazade by Ravel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 1, 2010

Thinking November with Tchaikovsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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