Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto

In 1975, my first long-term girlfriend, Lacy, and I had a fairly comfortable relationship. We shared very similar tastes in art, literature and music, and this fact made us pretty compatible. That is why we stayed together for around two years. At the beginning at least we just liked hanging out with each other.

The artsy campy crowd in my dorm that I hung out with seemed to approve of our relationship. At least we were still included in invitations to parties, excursions to our local favorite bar, “Bear’s Place,” and outings to symphony and opera performances.

Indiana University, as I have mentioned before, has a huge music school. To give you an idea of how big, in 1975 they had five full student orchestras, ranging from so-so to superb. The school also mounted a full opera season of works not only from the standard repertoire, but also modern works as well. And they didn’t just focus on Baroque to Early Modern. They had a serious Jazz studies program with its own orchestra, an early music ensemble, an electronic music studio, and they premiered a number of works by contemporary composers.

Once Lacy, who played the upright bass, came back from class very angry. Her orchestra had been rehearsing a work by some modern composer. She said they all turned the page in one section and the composer’s instructions were something like “improvise.” “That’s cheating!” she yelled.  “That’s not composing.”

So Lacy and I probably went out to see a concert at least once a week. The people in the French House read the daily listing of concerts and student recitals in the student newspaper, and we also went out en masse. Once we all organized an outing to go see the school’s production of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” The school announced that they would break up the five-hour performance with a two-hour intermission and start a bit early. That way, people could watch the first half of the opera, go to dinner, and come back for the conclusion. Our group decided to go to a posh restaurant in Bloomington called Sully’s Oaken Bucket and regale ourselves with a fine meal.

The sets for the opera had been done by a German professor in the school of music or theater. His claim to fame was having done the set for some opera at the Met in New York. He had tried a German Expressionist approach and had used virtually no props, creating an inward-looking mood by using only blue lighting.

What a bore! Someone had once told me that what made Wagner so great was that he had merged music with drama and–as director of his own opera house in Bayreuth–he had created a perfect multi-media event. Well for this production they had stripped it down to just three elements–voice, orchestra, and lighting. Part of the charm of opera, for me at least, is the pomp and theatricality and pageantry of it all. Even if one part, say the acting, is bad, you still have the singing, the costumes, the sets, and the music to stimulate you. This production of Parsifal was almost abstract and you were held captive by the hours and hours of sung dramatic text without any melody.

By the time intermission came, we bolted for the door and headed for our restaurant. This was the first time I eaten in a fancy restaurant as an adult with a group of my peers, and I must confess to being a little put off by the prices. Being the child of parents who’d lived through the Great Depression, I was used to always pinching pennies, looking for bargains, scrounging at garage sales and rarely splurging on something so extravagant and ephemeral as a fancy meal. I did manage to find a dish which fell in my price range–a shrimp curry, I believe–which wasn’t spectacular but did the job. I enjoyed the company however, the conversation and maybe even a glass of wine. Oddly enough we didn’t hurry back to the opera and ended up arriving about ½ hour late for the second part. The meal and the hour both conspired against me and I have to confess to falling asleep.

Fortunately, the school that year also produced Verdi’s Rigoletto and they went all out on the sets and costumes. One scene took place in the Duke’s palace and they had constructed a huge raised dance floor with a grand staircase leading up to it that was painted to look like marble with gold leaf. I think that one of the guys in my dorm, who was majoring in dance or theatre, auditioned and got a part as one of the dancer during the ballroom scene. The singing was superb and the orchestra on top form that night and it met all my criteria for a great production.

Verdi received a commission early in his career to write an opera for the Fenice theatre in Venice. He had been influenced by tragedies like Hamlet and King Lear but eventually settled on Victor Hugo’s play, Le Roi S’Amuse. Verdi and his librettist had to rework the story several times in order to get past the censors who did not take kindly to the portrayal of kings as scoundrels or suffer things like curses on stage, which might inflame the clergy. They changed the king to a Duke but left him a cad. The court jester is one Rigoletto, who though he plays the buffoon, sees the debauchery of the Duke and his court.  Because he is deformed, he justifies his own intriguing to pit the different male characters against one another. He has a beautiful daughter named Gilda, whom he keeps sequestered far away from the influence of the Duke.

This opera has several famous arias. In “Questa o Quella” the Duke sings about his amorous adventures and how one girl is just as good as another. Later, he sings the famous, “La Donna e Mobile” in which he describes all women as fickle and only good for one thing. Eventually it turns out that the Duke has managed to seduce Rigoletto’s daughter.  Rigoletto plots revenge. By a strange twist of fate, the thugs Rigoletto sends to murder the Duke accidentally kill his daughter instead, and deliver the body to him in a sack. He opens the bag to find his dying daughter and realize the curse that he has brought on himself.

Verdi wrote this opera in something like 40 days at the age of 37. Though over 150 years old, the base motivations for power and conquest still seem as applicable to our modern world as it was to Verdi’s.  These days, I think the modern malaise is is the desire to make excuses for dropping one’s own morals in the face of those in power who do so.  Nice guys finish last also has become a mantra in my home country.  Maybe so, but once you compromise your morals, it’s over.

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Pérotin: “Beata Viscera”

Just stumbled across this today, thanks to YOUTUBE.  Beautiful.  Ethereal. Quite a nice way to finish up a Sunday evening.

Anyone out there familiar with Pérotin?  Wikipedia says he was studied and taught in Paris, being associated with the Notre Dame school of polyphony in the late 12th and early 13th century.érotin

Samuel Barber: Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance

When I entered Indiana University as a sophomore in the fall of 1974, I began taking Latin. Fellow baby boomers might cringe when I admit this–many had to take Latin in public or Catholic school. Parsing sentences, declinations, and conjugations must have seemed really irrelevant in Cold War America.  By the time I got to high school, Latin had been dropped from the curriculum altogether, which disappointed me because I had wanted to take it from an early age. You’re probably wondering why.

I have written before how I used to sneak into the room of my older brother, Bob, and listen to his records. Bob also had a bookcase that held a number of dusty, old books. It was an eclectic collection. Some were text books that had obviously belonged to Bob or my oldest brother, Al. The others might have come from garage and rummage sales, scavenged by my father. The reason I suspect that had to do with the presence of a set of Western novels by Zane Grey, whose work my father loved. There was also a few books by Hemingway, but what caught my attention were a number of books on ancient culture–Greek, Roman and Egyptian.

I found myself usually drawn to one book–Caesar in Gaul, which was third year reader that had a long introduction on Roman warfare, a selection from Jason and the Argonauts, and Caesar’s Gallic War. The book was published in 1917 and they had spared no expense on the illustrations. The part on the Roman military had intricate drawings of weapons, siege engines, uniforms, troops in battle formation and maps in color showing Caesar’s routes. What really drew me to it was the very lurid picture of Caesar being stabbed in the Senate by a vicious electorate, his red blood trailing down the white marble steps and mixing with the inlaid cippolina marble and red granite of the Cosmatesque inlaid paving stones. As a young boy I used to stare at this picture in awe, which probably makes me less critical than some of the fascination with blood and gore video games like nowadays.

After the introduction, the rest of the book was entirely in Latin, which fascinated me and sparked my interest in the language. When I began studying French seriously in college, I learned it had evolved from Latin and thought it would help with my studies. Latin wasn’t offered at my first university, but Indiana University had a great classics department so I enrolled in Latin 101 when I got there.

In my second year at IU, we began working through a Roman reader and then Virgil’s Aeneid. My teacher was a cool bearded guy named Joe Day. A fellow classmate, named Mike Casey, happened to live in the German House next to my dorm and he and I became friends. We got in good with Joe and from time to time sat around with him drinking a few beers and debating Marxism, the classics and opera. We called him “doc” short for doctus the Latin word for teacher or tutor.

Joe loved Latin and did a great job of motivating his students by his passion. He had a gift for making the classics come alive, not only through his retelling of the stories, but also by enthusing about the poet’s use of language and meter in exciting ways that modern poetry lacks. Joe was responsible for igniting an interest in classical writers.  He also turned me onto debaucheries of Catullus.  Maybe if they had taught that stuff in Catholic school, Latin would have stayed in the curriculum.

In French class that semester, we read Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, “The Flies,” which retells the story or Orestes who slays his mother Clytemnestra to avenge the death of his father, Agememnon, whom his mother killed with the help of her lover Aegisthus. (Whew!) Sartre used the plot to explain the ideas of his philosophy, existentialism. Orestes makes a willful decision to act, in spite of knowing the consequences–that he will be plagued for all eternity by the Furies in the form of a cloud of stinging flies. Even though his mother deserved it, Orestes was still guilty of matricide, a real no-no.

Around this same time period, the Italian film dierctor, Pasolini, released a film version of the myth of Medea. Medea was a witch who married Jason, a mythological precursor to Odysseus and Aneas. Medea is so pissed off by her husband’s infidelity that she murders most of his children, cooks them, and then serves them to him on his return. Pasolini chose Maria Callas for the starring role.

I found something appealing about all these old myths, which despite the intervention of the whimsy of gods, seemed a bit more sane than our current Zeitgeist. The people sometimes just can’t help acting in spite of being for the most part rational. Those who are driven to great deeds and acts–the lust for power or influence–may sometimes obtain their goals, but at a very high price. And though they might think they’ve cheated death or won the contest, fate has a way of coming round and humbling them. Or as Lily Tomlin once put it–“the bad thing about the rat race is the even if you win, you’re still a rat.”

I discovered Barber’s Medea Meditation and Dance of Vengeance quite by accident. It was included on an album with his Adagio for Strings, which I wrote about in my previous post. In my junior year of college, there were days when I was so blue that I would wallow in self-pity and listen to the Adagio. Other days, I would pump up the volume and energize myself by listening to the Medea’s Meditation. While the Adagio demonstrates Barber’s mastery of more traditional lush orchestration and melody, Medea’s Meditation shows he had also assimilated the modern trend toward dissonance and Stravinsky’s emphasis on rhythm as a vehicle for affect in music.

The piece starts out lyrically enough, with lush strings, with just a touch of Hollywood schmaltz. After this calm introduction, the piano plays a syncopated tune on the lower part of the keyboard–kind of a boogie-woogie–which sets the rhythm for the killing frenzy into which Medea whips herself. I can’t think of a piece that better expresses the horrific side of humanity envisioned by a myth about infanticide and cannibalism. Yet, I don’t find it a horrifying piece, and it certainly never made me go out and imitate Medea–or enter politics.

Barber Biography

CD or MP3 of Samuel Barber: Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance

Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings

After Kristy dumped me early in the fall of 1975, I returned to spending most of my time with the arsty-campy crowd that gravitated to Mark Z*’s room in the French House. Almost all of the usual suspects had returned–Cynthia, the voice major, Michael, the Chinese/composition major, David, the intense Russian/German major, Thom Klem, and Lacy anwho was majoring in comparative literature and string bass. A new person also joined the group–a small, neat little girl named Elizabeth whose father owned a factory. She and Cynthia eventually became lovers.

David had moved off campus to a small brick rambler a few blocks behind the French House. We often went there to cook meals, drink, watch television, and drink some more. David was a polymath–every week he seemed to be studying another language. But he was practically-inclined as well: his father had taught him about electronics and how to work with wood. He built a massive bookcase on which he proudly displayed his books and records. He had fine leather-bound volumes of the works of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in Russian, Proust in French, and Nietsche in German. He also had a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and lots of wonderful art books on Kandinsky, Van Gogh, and Vermeer.

David’s record collection was awesome. Most were Deutsche Gramophon recordings of German music–Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. On our visits to his house he would pull out some new purchase and play it for us on his wonderful stereo, whose speakers he had built himself. David liked modern music as well, especially avante garde works and once drove us all away by playing some god-awful piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen, the most unlistenable composer who ever lived.

Someone in our circle bought a new recording of Thomas Schippers conducting Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In the 24 years since then, this piece has become one of the most overplayed pieces, being used to flog almost every product or as the swelling background music in some poignant death scene of movies. Back then, however, no one had so profaned it yet, and it pretty much took our clique by storm. I immediately went out and bought a copy and spent a number of hours sitting in my room listening to it while bemoaning my fate at having been dumped by Kristy.

Barber originally wrote this piece as the second movement of his String Quartet, Opus 11 in the late 1930s. Arturo Toscanini liked it so much that he convinced Barber to rescore it for orchestra and he premiered it in 1938. It is probably the most-played piece by any American composer. It starts out quietly with a sad melody. The strings then begin to overlap one another as they building to a frenzied climax before finally returning to the sad melody of the beginning.

Re-reading the above, it seems I’ve painted a picture of myself back then as a morose, depressive type. Extravert Geminis rarely stay blue for long, however, and I spent many a fine moment hanging out with my clique. I use the term “extravert” in the Myers-Briggs sense of one who derives their energy from being around people. In many way, I remained shy and having been rejected by Kristy made me even more timid around women. That is probably the reason I ended up gravitating toward and spending more and more time with Lacy.

Lacy didn’t live in the French House but in another dorm in our large sprawling complex. As I said, she majored in comparative literature and string bass. She was thin and the sight of her hoicking around a huge upright bass when she performed in her orchestra was quite comical. I found her quite attractive. She had high cheekbones and cute freckly skin. What caught everybody’s attention, however, was her huge mane of fiery red hair. She wore it long and combed out, but it had a natural wave which gave her a kind of wild air. This was belied by her breathy, little-girl voice. People would stop and stare at her hair, constantly remark about it, or even just reach out and touch it, which I’m sure didn’t at all make her self-conscious.

Lacy had a sweet disposition, coupled with a wicked sense of humor. For that reason she liked hanging around the artsy-campy crowd that met in Mark’s room. I suspect that like me, she lived vicariously through watching the antics of the theatrical, extroverts in that group.

After Kristy dumped me (there I go again), I found myself talking more and more with Lacy at the cafeteria. Like me she loved literature, studying languages (French and German), and listening to good music. We had a lot to talk about. But I was so retarded, I never would have put the moves on her hat it not been for a Vittorio de Sica film.

Lacy liked foreign movies almost as much as I did, and we both got excited to learn that the local art-house cinema was going to show that Italian film maker’s latest film, “A Brief Vacation.” We didn’t go together, but we were surprised and happy to see each other at the cinema and I sat a few rows behind her.

This movie has to be one of the most poignant and heart-breaking flicks I have ever seen. An Italian housewife has a pig of a husband, disrespectful teenage kids, and lives near poverty in a tiny flat in some dreary suburb of a large industrial Italian city. She works long hours in a factory and then must come home to work like a slave. Everyone yells at her and treats her like a doormat.

She develops a cough and goes to the doctor. He diagnoses her as having tuberculosis. The National Health Service orders the standard therapy for her–rest and recuperation at a sanitarium in the Alps. There she blossoms–she reads books, people pamper her, she meets a young buck and has an affair, she gets involved in a protest to improve the working condition of the nurses and aides who work in the sanitarium. The ugly duckling becomes a swan. Cinderella finds her fairy godmother and marries the prince. One day on her visit to the doctor, he tells her she’s completely recovered and can return home. Her lover begs her to run off with him, but she decides she cannot. The final scene is burned in my mind–she steps off the train in a grimy station. Her family instantly launches into her, making fun of her new image and berating her for having abandoned them while she went off and pampered herself. The camera pulls away and we see a person very alone.

When the lights came up, there was a stunned silence in the theatre. I had tears in my eyes and when I looked over at Lacy, she looked up at me and I saw she was crying. I hurried over to her and she hugged me and sobbed. We went to a quiet café and talked and then she and I walked back across campus holding hands. She remained my girlfriend for the next two years.

Eventually, I learned the secret of her timidity. Her parents had divorced and she had a an older brother who had developed schizophrenia. He had started out a genius, but then had a psychotic episode. He ended up living at home. That was one of the first broken families I had ever spent any time with (the divorce rate was much lower back then) and attitudes toward people with mental illness was even worse that it is today. So much pain hung in that family, and I admired how Lacy took it in stride.

I don’t remember any more why we broke up. That was over 30 years ago. Being the type of person I was back then, I can well imagine that I found some excuse based on “my needs” or some reason why she didn’t measure up to my standards. This is the curse and blessing of middle age: we’ve learned how to be nicer people, but we remember all the people we’ve hurt along the way. Hope I haven’t damaged my karma too much.

Buy CD or MP3 of Samuel Barber’s Adagio

Alexander Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy

I chose to write about Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, which Michael Dr***, a student of Turkish, Chinese and music composition (and a regular visitor to the French House), introduced me to around the fall of 1975. Scriabin was something of a mystic and was influenced by the philosophy of Nietzsche and the theosophists. Nietzsche, you will remember, wrote about the Apollonian (intellectual) and Dionysian (sensual, ecstatic) natures and the need to incorporate both. Well, the Poem of Ecstasy conveys a sense of losing oneself in sensual desire, a continuous sense of building anticipation, and a final climactic release and obliteration of the ego. I get all sweaty just writing about it.

In the fall of 1975, (and after having spent the summer working in a lamp assembly plant), I was happy to return to the French House. I had requested an end room, which was a little larger than the others in the dorm. Unfortunately, being next to the entrance and therefore the stairwell, it turned out to be noisier–with people coming and going at all hours of the day and night.

My end room had a very important perk, though. Often, when I was studying in my room, I would leave the door open. Visitors to the dorm, seeing my light on, would often knock on my door and ask where so-and-do lived. Thus, I became the functional concierge of the French House, which, being somewhat of an extravert, I actually thrived on.

My mother has always shown almost fanatical interest in things related to health, nutrition and fitness. Back in the 1960s she started leading exercise classes at the local YMCA where she worked as a lifeguard. Toward the end of the decade, she became more and more interested in nutrition–which changed our family’s diet as she started buying health foods, using less salt, and growing organic vegetables and herbs in my father’s garden. My father, by the way loved, to see things grow. During the summer, he would work 9 hours a day in a factory and then come home and spend the remaining daylight hours working on his garden. I used to think he was crazy and rebuffed his efforts to get me to help. But eventually I learned to appreciate the near-meditative state into which gardening can lead you. Whenever I left for college in Bloomington after summer break, therefore, my parents would load me up with fresh vegetables and dried herbs, one of which, peppermint, our family had gotten into the habit brewing into an infusion which we would drink instead of coffee or tea.

A number of new people had moved into the French House in the fall of 1975, and I tried to get to know them as well. I had a little hotplate used to heat water and when people would drop in, and I would offer them cups of peppermint tea. This was one of the best things about living in the dorm: you could have a salon where people would pop ‘round to chat, have a deep discussion, get drunk, gossip, listen to music, or just socialize.

One late night, as I was getting ready for bed, someone started pounding on my door. A female voice said, “Kurt!” “Kurt! Open up.” I opened the door and there stood Kristy (name changed to protect the innocent) a woman whom I had met the year before. Kristy lived in the Spanish House, which was connected to the French House by our common lounge, and she was a very intelligent, exuberant and forward person. Whenever we ran into each other in the cafeteria, we exchanged witty remarks, but I never thought she’d be interested in me. This night, Kristy had been drinking, and she was intent on seducing me. I will never forget the excitement I felt when that realization dawned on me (and that I hadn’t even had to go through the whole pursuit and rejection dance). My heart pounded and my stomach filled with a mass of butterflies, and our night spent together was sublime.

I spent the next day walking on clouds. Later that evening, I paid a visit to Kristy at her house off campus into which she had moved with two other women from the Spanish House. We cooked a nice dinner, listened to music, danced, and then Kristy dumped me. I spent the next five years or wondering why.  We did stay friends, and for a long time, she remained the archetypal woman for me. On the down side, it caused me to approach relationships with women with my guard up, for fear of being hurt. My guard consisted of keeping an intellectual and emotional distance from the women I became involved with. I never allowed myself to fall in love and usually found some reason to dump them pre-emptively: they either weren’t as smart as Kristy, or pretty, or didn’t hold the same feminist views as she did. Building this shell, turned out to be my loss, really, because it kept me from really connecting with people who were no doubt quite decent and loving people. Oh well–that’s one of those lessons it takes some people years to learn. Or as Joni Mitchell put it–“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?  From ecstasy to insularity.  Eventually I found ecstasy again many years later.

Scriabin Biography

Buy MP3 or CD Alexander Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy – Valery Gergiev / Kirov Orchestra

Gustav Mahler: Songs of a Wayfarer

After spending the summer of 1975 working in a lamp factory, I was very happy to return to the French House. A few new people moved into the dorm, but most of the artsy-campy people who gravitated to Mark Z**’s room returned, and that provided a ready-made social network that I could just step right into.

During the summer, I had met up with Thom Klem, who belonged to Mark’s coterie, and who happened to live fairly near me in South Bend, Indiana. When we returned to Indiana University, we started spending more and more time together, and he eventually became my best friend. There were several reasons for this. First, Thom was a voracious reader, and he especially like contemporary French writers. Since I was majoring in French, he and I had a lot to talk about and he introduced me to the works of Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre and existential philosophy. Second, Thom and I had both come from Catholic families, and each of us had fallen away from the faith. Still, Catholicism had instilled enough guilt and moral sense in us that we became obsessed with finding a moral and ethical system that would show us the right way to behave while at the same time being free from religious dogma. Existentialism fulfilled part of that role. Third, since Thom was a Chinese major, he introduced me to a number of concepts from Eastern philosophy–Buddhism and Taoism–and these resonated with me as well. Finally, we both loved to cook, and Thom was a was a gourmet and gourmand. He approached cooking in a methodical and scholarly way.

Thom had had lived in France and Taiwan, so he tended to focus on recreating dishes from those cuisines, but really he would try anything that struck his fancy. One of the first times I saw him after we got back to college, he told me he was reading Boswell’s The life of Samuel Johnson. A few weeks later he announced that he was going to start making a Christmas plum pudding. “But it’s not Christmas,” I said. Then he told me that it took so long to make that even though it was September it might not be done. There was a challenge for him. What astounded me more is that the recipe he used came from Larousse Gastronomique the big blue bible of French cooking. He had found an edition in English, which of course was geared for British cooks and therefore contained some recipes from the United Kingdom. He spent the next few days assembling the ingredients–a pound of suet; 5 ½ cups breadcrumbs; 2 ½ cups of flour; ¾ cups Malaga raisins; 1 ¼ cups of currents; 1 cup sultana raisins; ¼ pound candied citron; ¼ pound candied orange peel; ½ cap stoned prunes; 2 cups peeled and grated cooking apples; 1 cup blanched, chopped almonds; 1 ½ cup brown sugar; the grated rind and juice of one orange and one lemon; 4 whole eggs; 3 tablespoons of mixed spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger; 4 cups of rum; and 1 2/3 teaspoons of salt. After assembling all this into a chthonic mass, he added ¼ of the rum. From then on, he had to stir it every few days and add another 4 teaspoons of rum.

Another time, Thom became obsessed with having a glass of warm milk with a dash of vanilla before going to bed. He read up on vanilla and discovered that it was an extract of the fermented seed from a South American orchid. On another occasion, he decided he liked red vermouth. He systematically started buying and sampling different brands, before settling on the one he wanted. Thom liked the fact that I shared his enthusiasm for different tastes. Since he came from a fairly affluent family, he could afford to indulge himself so I benefited by receiving a culinary education at a cut rate.

It may sound a bit odd, but knowing Thom and our fascination with food brought together a lot of different elements that formed the way I think. I mentioned our quest for finding a personal ethic and Buddhism and existentialism. Buddhism and Taoism focus on finding the right way of living that is in harmony with nature, they make you concentrate on the “here and now.” Nowadays the term used is “mindfulness” and it means being aware and open to the spiritual and sacred in the present tense and in every day acts. You can spend years working to become a master of cooking–studying smells, tastes, vegetables, nutrition, techniques, implements–so that when you cook, it becomes a meditative act in which you bring together all the years of discipline to take the ingredients at hand and create a satisfying and nutritious meal that feeds the body and soul.

Partaking of food to me therefore has become a sacrament. And when I prepare it for others, to me it becomes an act of love and devotion. Call me weird if you wish.

Thom was not as obsessed with Western classical music as I was, but he appreciated it just the same. His passion in music ran to what back then was the precursor to today’s “World Music.” He bought recordings of flamenco music, Arabic music, French chansons, Balinesian Gamelan, Chinese opera and anything else he could find. Looking back, I think it was he who first told me about Bach’s “Coffee Cantata.” How fitting.

The “Songs of the Wayfarer” cycle contain four poems Mahler which Mahler wrote.  They are scored for baritone voice and full orchestra, though they are also sometimes sung by women.  Mahler wrote them after an failed romance with a soprano when he was a conductor in Kassel, Germany in the 1880s.   They deal with a man coming to terms with the loss of his beloved to another man.  It’s full of Romantic emotions, the kind I myself felt in the French house, trying to work out who I was, finding a soul mate, and wanting to become an artist.  The four songs resemble the stages Kubler-Ross wrote about a century later, going from anger and despair to acceptance.

The second poem,”Ging heut Morgen ubers Feld” means “I went this morning over the field.”  It is a happy melody and matches the sentiments of the poem, in which the singer extols the wonders of nature as he walks through a field on a morning noticing the dew on the grass and the songs of birds.  The melody comes out of Mahler’s First Symphony and is so upbeat and refreshing.  Although at the end, the narrator realizes he will no longer be able to bloom with his love gone.

I don’t remember whether Klem and I ever listened to Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer but it is another piece that I first heard at the French House. It seems fitting to use it to remember Thom, who died of AIDS in the early 1990s. If anyone way a wayfarer–discovering the wonder of nature and the cultural contributions of mankind–it was Thom.

Buy Mahler: Songs of a Wayfarer; Kindertotenlieder; Rückert-Lieder

Ludwig Van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.4 in G Major, Op.58

The summer of 1975 saw me returning to my home town of Mishawaka, Indiana to find work to pay for the upcoming year of college. The factory where I had worked the year before announced they would not hire any college students that summer. So I spent a few weeks looking through want ads and driving around the industrial parks of Elkhart, Indiana.

Elkhart had about a million factories, which had sprung up during the 1960s around the mobile home industry. Back in the late 50s, some guy had the bright idea of building motor and mobile homes outside that town. This was perfect timing–the Eisenhower administration had started funding and building the interstate road system. In the post war boom period, people had a renewed “westward-ho!” spirit and the recreational vehicle (RV) business boomed. Brands like Holiday Rambler, Airstream, and Skyline sprang up and put thousands to work in northern Indiana. The timing and location was right for several other reasons as well. The biggest industrial plant–Studebaker’s auto–went bust in 1963 and put a large chunk of the population out of work. Many of these workers migrated twenty miles eastward to Elkhart.

Choosing Elkhart was a stroke of genius for one final reason–it lay on the northern edge of Amish territory. The Amish had a strong work ethic and would toil away for long hours without organizing into trade unions. They were faithful employees and the minimum wage they earned gave a needed shot of capital into their otherwise barter economy. It allowed them to trade with the outside world. Since they weren’t heavy consumers, they didn’t drive up the prices for the rest of us heathens, so life was pretty cheap.

By the summer of 1975, however, after the OPEC oil embargo, the RV industry hit a slump. The price of gasoline soared–doubling, then tripling–and people started buying smaller cars and cross country travel became more expensive. So there was no work to be had with the big mobile home manufacturers. That is why I felt lucky when one of the place where I had filled out a job application–a lamp assembly plant–called me back and offered me a job.

This position turned out to be a sine cure, that is a cushy job. The plant assembled cheap table and swag lamps from molded glass and brass-plated tin parts that came from Mexico. The plant had three main areas–a loading dock, an assembly line and a storage area. They offered me a job as a jack of all trades, and my duties were to sweep, keep the assembly line stocked with parts, and help load and unload trucks as needed.

I spent most of my time with “the girls.” The girls worked the assembly line. Most of them were high school drop-outs, poor and from the wrong side of the tracks. Some were cute; some were single; some were my age and were married and had a brood of kids; some were older, married and had quiet, sullen husbands. All of them were very nice to me. Their boss was a small dark lady, with long black hair, a squat, wide torso, and a deeply lined rugged face. Doris. She was a kind boss who never yelled. In the morning, she would get the day’s quota from the president and send me to round up the parts and stock the bins for each person on the line with swags, shades, chains, harps, bases and cords. Someone would tune the radio to the local “Light Rock” channel and production would begin.

For the women, the assembly line served as a kind of sewing circle for them. They kept up a running conversation for almost the whole day. They discussed their kids, their husbands or boyfriends, their sex life, recipes, their joys and sorrows. The only time they ever stopped was when a popular song came on that they all liked.  Doris once floored me by singing along to James Taylor’s cover of “How Sweet it Is to Be Loved By You.”

The women didn’t censor their conversation because I was around, and they sometimes talked louder when they wanted to see how I would react. Every so often someone would make a risque remark and everyone would look up to see my reaction. Let’s face it: I was an airhead back then. The job held little that you could call intellectually taxing, and so I spent most of my time lost in day dreams about the wonderful semester I had passed in the French House.

One of my jobs was to assemble cardboard packing boxes. I would fold these into shape and then take them over to an upright stapling machine to reinforce them. One day while stapling, I went into a little reverie and stood motionless for several minutes before the machine. The voice of the foreman brought me around followed by the laughter of the women. “Kurt! What the hell are you doing?” the foreman yelled. “Looks like he’s gone into one of his trances again!” one of the women shouted. But no one punished me for that.

The foreman was generally pretty nice to me. Technically he was in charge of the loading dock but he really knew how everything worked–he understood the flow of goods in and out of the place and how to keep it running smoothly. He would schmooze with the truckers and then come over to the assembly line and joke with the girls to keep them happy. He was maybe 5 or 10 years older than me and was about my size but was a little more muscular. When we weren’t too busy he’d have me sweep or sometimes ask me to help him and his Mexican assistant load or unload a truck.

The loading dock was where the “Men’s Sewing Circle” met. Sometimes the president would come over and swap dirty stories with the foreman and the truckers. My friend Eric Tollar told me that he had read a study about the language of truck drivers. He cited a statistic that said that over 40 percent of a trucker’s speech is made up of swear words. I did a considerable amount of field work that summer and I’m happy to report that my statistics corroborate that earlier study.

Now my father swore a lot. But he rarely used any sexual imprecations. Of course, he swore a lot in Hungarian, which I didn’t speak and which I am told contains the filthiest swear words of any language on the face of the earth. So maybe he was as foul-mouthed as the truckers, but I never knew it, and the truckers’ language would sometimes make me blush. And since I was still a virgin–at 20–their description of their sexual exploits made me feel woefully inadequate.

That is another reason I spend most of my time on the girls’ side. The most sexually charged conversation there happened one day when one of the girls–let’s call her Jenny–described “doing it” in cars and how she had once “done it” in a Volkswagen Beetle. Being around my age, Jenny was the prettiest of the girls and the most extroverted. Given the right background, she might have gone to college. Instead, she had probably been labeled as “wild” or from the “wrong side of the tracks” and ended up here, doing unskilled labor in this factory. I think she might have been an unwed mother. The other girls liked her, perhaps finding in her stories of her exploits and boyfriends the fantasy life they longed for.

One day, at quitting time, I happened to find myself driving out the parking lot behind Jenny. She was driving a Volkswagen Beetle. It just so happened that she took the same route as me. She turned off before reaching the main road, and I saw her pull into the yard of a ramshackle, tar paper-covered shack. I knew the type of place. My neighborhood had a number of places like this. Poverty breeds ignorance and the children who came from these kind of homes–often with step parents and step-brothers and sisters–usually did poorly academically and rarely had a bright future ahead of them.

Poor people, however, sometimes have bigger hearts than the rich. The women on the assembly line often cut me slack. If they sometimes ran out of parts because I hadn’t kept up stocking the parts, they’d tell me, but never in an angry way. And when the summer came to an end and I announced that I was returning to college, they took up a collection, which they enclosed in a huge, sappy farewell card on which they all signed their names. It was one of the nicest gifts I have ever received.

After that reminiscense, I don’t know what to say about Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Number 4. I find a lot to like in all of Beethoven’s piano concertos. The first sounds like it could almost have been written my Mozart. The last had Beethoven’s unmistakable profundity of emotion. The fourth starts out with a nice quite reverie-producing set of chords played by the piano before the orchestra takes them and swells up into a passage that sounds straight out of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The piano solo that fill the middle section starts out with a lovely lilting melody before Beethoven starts showing off his extreme fluidity by weaving the instrument up and down and in and out and around the other instruments. He pits this against a semi-serious melody that the orchestra brings back several times. Each time he acknowledges the serious concerns that melody, but he then always mulls it around and resolves it on an uplifting note. The second movement by contrast is much more serious and reflective. It starts with a very serious statement by the strings before the piano comes in with all quiet, meditative and spiritual. This is someone with a deeply religious sense. The movement ends with a kind of musical question–“is life worth all the pain and struggle?” The last movement answers that question, however, with a resounding “yes!”

No matter how miserable you circumstances and what crap life deals you, it is also full of possibilities. Some people born in squalor or from broken homes or subject to horrible setbacks have emerged triumphant.   However, I wonder how those women in that lamp factory turned out.

<a href=”; 5Buy CD or Download Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 & 5

Ludwig Van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 ‘Emperor’

After the most wonderful semester of my college career, in the summer of 1975, I returned to my home town of Mishawaka, Indiana. On weekends I would accompany my friends, Eric Tollar and Gary Endicott, over the border to Michigan where the legal drinking age was 18. Often we’d start out at Tollar’s house. Tollar’s dad was a taciturn engineer and I can’t remember him ever addressing more than a sentence or two in my direction.

Maybe he thought I was a bad influence on Eric. Eric had been the valedictorian the class ahead of mine in high school and he went to Purdue University to major in math. That was a good guy thing to study. Here I came bringing over most of the new records I had discovered the semester before at Indiana University, exposing his son to all that sissy music. Eric you see, coming from a more affluent family than mine, had a stereo that his parents had bought him for the exorbitant price (for 1975) of $900.

Eric’s room was in the attic, which his father had converted into a nice living space. We’d go up there before one of our drinking binges and listen to Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Montiverdi. His father sat in the living room below smoking camels, drinking Scotch and watching Lawrence Welk. What a terrible disappointment that must have been for him.

Eric’s dad had also bought him a used Ford Mustang fastback, which we used to take on our excursions to Michigan. It never got us any girls, however. The reason was that we spent all of our time in the bar trying to get as drunk as possible while discussing philosophy, literature and music. At that time, Eric was a sneering and atheistic cynic. Having a huge IQ also gave him the right, in his own mind, to make fun of most people of lesser intelligence. I enjoyed sitting and asking naïve questions or provoking him by gainsaying his opinions. It was almost like having a private tutor, in the old-fashioned sense, and I learned so much from him as well as honed my own wits in our outings.

One night we got tired of the bar where we started and moved to another one right on the state line, which had the reputation of being a good pick-up joint. By the time we got there it was around one in the morning and the place was nearly empty. We had a few beers and left. When we got into Eric’s car, we discovered he had left the lights on and the battery had gone dead. The parking lot was empty so we couldn’t get a jump. After wringing his hands for a while, Eric finally decided to call his dad. Goddamn if the old man didn’t hop in his car and drive on up.

We waited in silence for the next half hour until he arrived. Gary and I knew how our dads would have reacted if we had woken them up at such an ungodly hour to tell them we were out drinking and had left the lights on. We would have been dead meat, but we didn’t know how Tollar’s dad would react. Tollar was silent on the matter.

When Eric’s dad arrived he jumped out of his car and strode over to his son’s car, barely acknowledging us. He tried starting the car. Then he popped the hood and poked around for a while. “It’s not the battery. Starter’s bad. Let’s go.” We hopped into his car and he sped off. It was one of the spookiest rides of my life–drunk or sober. No one said a word and the old man drove like a bat out of hell. He looked straight ahead the whole way home and passed people on the right who were slow getting off the mark at stop lights. Back at Eric’s Gary and I got our cars and no one said anything as Eric’s dad strode into the house with Eric following behind.

Eric’s basement had an old piano and a television that could pick up channels from Chicago. Sometimes after a night of drinking, we’d come back and watch old movies. Eric had taken a few years of piano lessons and sometimes spent his spare time working on a classical piece. I had loaned him my sheet music to Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp Minor. He said it was incredibly difficult, but he did manage to get through the opening, which I think is one of the greatest ominous statements in all of music.

What I really liked about visiting Eric’s, of course, was his fancy stereo. It had huge speakers that brought a whole new dimension to the music I had only heard on my tinny old stereo. Eric especially liked piano music and we spent a good deal of time trying to find the perfect recording of a piece. Eric, being a math major, wanted to find the most precise, elegant and technically perfect performance. He liked the German performers–Kempff and Richter–who recorded on Deutsche Gramophon. I preferred the more Romantic interpreters–Rubenstein, Entrement, and Van Cliburn.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 was one of the pieces we became fascinated with that summer. My memory fails me as to the precise semester, but I saw this concerto performed at Indiana University by a doctoral student. Now all music is fun to watch performed live, and this is especially true of concertos in which a soloist plays against the orchestra. And of all the concertos, those for piano to be the most exciting to watch, because the performer can bang on the keys and release so much passion and energy.

I haven’t listened to the Piano Concerto No.5 for a number of years-maybe 10. But as I sit here now, writing today’s entry on a subway car hurtling along underground, I hear the last joyous movement playing in my head and can still picture that female piano major tackling the piece and her sense of triumph as she finished the last movement and stood up to face the cheers of the audience.

I can hear from its orchestration that it lies close to Beethoven’s 6th and 7th symphonies, though predating the latter. The third movement has a galloping cadence which, despite a mournful second theme, carries you along the entire way in a state of bliss.

Listening to this piece again makes me think that composing music must be the ultimate in artistic experiences. Music is unique among the arts because it deals primarily in the fourth dimension. For some reason, it also has a synaesthetic effect. That is, you perceive it aurally, but it has the ability to make your neurons fire in the same cadence of the rhythm and you end up tapping your foot. A composer, taking the sounds he hears in his head, can recreate those sounds in a way so that you hear them as well, and so, there is also a sympathetic effect as well: musically actually takes you into the head of the composer so you can experience the reality of another human being.

So that is how I know, from listening to the last movement of his Piano Concerto No.5 that Beethoven was, deep down, a joyful and happy person. Of course, he wrote passionate and heart-rending music that-because of his deafness-makes all of us think of him as a tragic figure. But how life-affirming and altruistic to take one’s profoundly moving emotions, both sad and happy, and bring them out for others to hear. If my mind spun out such wonderful music, I’d be a very happy person indeed.

Buy CD or download MP3s of Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”

Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird

My older brother, Ken, had a girlfriend back in grade school, named Donna. She went on to marry Ken’s best friend, and then Ken married Donna’s best friend Carolyn. Donna major in English, because she loved to read. Whenever she found an author who appealed to her, she would methodically read every one of his or her books. She worked her way through all of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner.

I respected her approach, but being a Gemini myself, I have been unable to follow that route either with authors or composers. I’m much too easily distracted by the latest sight, sound, taste and have spent my life, jumping from one interest to another. This is the way of the dilettante, and though it’s too late to change my ways, I wouldn’t if I could. It has served me well.

My one exception to dilettantism in the world of music, however, has been Igor Stravinsky. After I discovered Rite of Spring and Petrushka I started to check out and buy anything by Stravinsky that I could. I still listened to other composers, of course, but I always returned–and still do, by the way–to Igor’s music.  It’s worth doing.  Everyone knows his big ballet works, but once I heard a snippet from his opera, A Rake’s Progress, which I had never hear before, that was so lovely that it almost melted my heart.

The third piece of Stravinsky, that I devoted some time to was his probably most well-known piece,The Firebird. This was his first ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris. Since it predates Rite of Spring and Petrushka it lies closer to the Russian school out of which Stravinsky came.  (He studied under Rimsky-Korsakov.) In The Firebird for example, you can hear echoes of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Great Gate of Kiev” from Pictures at an Exhibition. At the same time, it is much more melodic, owing to the influence of Tchaikowsky. Finally, the lush and shimmering orchestration reminds me of the Impressionists, Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky’s near immediate elders in Paris.

This piece makes me think of a quote by Stravinsky: “all great composers steal.” Now I don’t know whether I’d call this work plagiarism. Rather, I’d say he was such a genius that he had completely mastered the artistic techniques and traditions of Western music until his time. The Firebird shows his attempt to synthesize everything he knew, or at least demonstrate his mastery of them, perhaps before finding his own unique voice, which burst on the scene and turned the music world upside down with the Rite of Spring.

I find it puzzling that no one in the 20th century was able to touch him. Why did so many composers who came after him get lost in the world of 12 tone, atonality, minimalism and serialism, some of which Stravinsky himself explored, instead of standing on his shoulders? The philosopher, T.E. Hulme, of course, wrote a book on how artistic movements become more abstract when a civilization is undergoing chaos–for example Byzantine art became progressively two dimensional as the empire collapsed. And in prosperous times, Hulme noted that art became increasingly naturalistic and representative as happened in Renaissance Florence. So maybe that is what happened in 20th century music as well. As European civilization collapsed under two world wars and then the cold war’s threat of annihilation, perhaps our music represented that angst. After the Vietnam War ened and until the economic meltdown of 2008, tastes ran toward the more lush and stimulating music of the neo-romanticists like Aarvo Paart and Henryk Gorecki. Thank god. If I hear another monotonous piece by Phillip Glass, I think I’ll stick knitting needles in my ears.

The youtube video above is the Suite he composed in 1919.  Below is a longer version with Stravisnky conducting.  It seems to be from Japanese TV.

Download MP# or Buy CD of Stravinsky Conducting Firebird

Paul Hindemith: Symphony Mathis der Maler

There is a Kurt Vonnegut story called Harrison Bergeron. The story takes place in the year 2081 in a totalitarian society in which no one is supposed to be better than anyone else. Anyone with any natural talent, good looks or ability had to wear crippling or disfiguring accoutrements to prevent them from out-shining the next person. For example, a Barishnikov-type ballet dancer has to wear lead weights and gunny sacks filled with sand to prevent him from jumping higher than the other members of his troupe.

Paul Hindemith’s story is a bit like that.  Hindemith was a gifted composer who developed his own theory of music that encompasses the 12 tone system that Schoenberg and others were using to turn western music on its head in early 20th Century Germany.  Hindemith, however, is considered a late romantic, and managed to remain melodic.  Not melodic enough, it turned out, and the Nazi propogandist Joeseph Goebbels, denounced the composer’s work as “degenerate” and Hindemith as an “atonal noisemaker.”

Hindemith was a violist and violinist and an influential music educator.  In the 1930, he went to Turkey and helped reform their musical educational system.  He fled to Switzerland in 1938 as his wife was Jewish.  He ended up emigrating to the US in 1940 where he ended up teaching at Yale, where he had a number of students who became influential in their own right.

Mathis der Maler was composed in 1934 for the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Wilhelm Furtwangler.  Hindemith took themes and melodies and sections from an opera by the same name that he was working on and turned them into a symphony.  The opera is about Matthias Grunewald, a painter who lived in the 1500s during the Protestant Reformation.  It explores the painter’s struggle to express himself in the face of a repressive religious and political climate.  It clearly mirrored Hindemith’s own struggles for artistic expression and freedom under the Nazis.

Hindemeth continued to work after coming to the United States and actively composed right up to his death in 1963. Unfortunately, his work wasn’t considered avant garde enough, so a lot of his music remains unrecorded. This is unfortunate for musicologists consider him to be one of the greatest influences on modern symphonic music. Mathis Der Maler manages to be experimental and ground-breaking while remaining quite accessible. His orchestration is as colorful as Ravel’s and the rhythms can be as complex as those of Stravinsky. He emphasized the brass section as well, and his Mathis is a robust piece for that reason as well.

I first came upon the piece in 1975, while living in the French house, and it reminds me of a guy, named Nick, whom I met there, who I became friends, which friendship lasted for many years.

In the French House there lived a plump little blonde whom we called Bettina. She had a friend named Mary who, how shall we say, had certain appetites. Bettina hosted a few soirees in her room and I had fun gossiping with them, hearing Mary tell of her exploits with men. She was “dating” a guy named “Doc” who lived in Nick’s dorm. One day at the cafeteria, Mary and Bettina waved me over to their table as I walked in. There sat Doc and this guy with a big grin on his face. He cut an impressive figure, dressed all in black with a Greek fisherman’s cap on his head. He had a grizzled beard and a big moustache above which rose up a majestic Gallic nose. He and I hit it off immediately.

Nick told me he was majoring in German language and dance. His mother taught Spanish at a university in Massachussets, and his father was a French poet who lectured in literature at some girl’s college in Pennsylvania. Nick worshipped Rudolf Nureyev, whom he had recently seen dance at our university. Nick was living with a girl who, he said, “came from your neck of the woods, Michigan City.” It turned out that we had a similar sense of humor, loved puns, and shared a fondness for Woody Allen films. Nick proceeded to tell me the plot and most of the jokes from two of Allen’s films I had missed: “Play it Again Sam,” and “What’s Up Tiger Lily?” He had me in stitches.

We couldn’t have talked for more than an hour, but in that short time, Nick had somehow managed to telegraph all that information to me. (Oh yes, he also told me how he had spent a year in England in high school and how he had been the only male dancer in his upper crust school’s dance troupe, nudge, nudge.) When dinner was over, we went our separate ways and I think I might have been a bit sad, for here was someone whom I would have really liked to have for a friend. As it turned out, for the rest of my time at Indiana University and on three continents our paths would cross and recross innumerable times.

Several weeks after our dinner, I was walking past the new and very modern performing arts center on campus when I heard someone call my name from above. This building was made of poured concrete and someone rumored that it had been designed by Claes Oldenburg. It had a semi-circular entrance area that was attached to a long, high, shoe-box shaped structure that rose up high above the surrounding trees. From afar, perched on a hill, the whole structure looked like a huge toilet. Actually, now that I think of it, I think Claes Oldenburg might have created a sculpture for it that was a huge water valve float from the cistern of a toilet.

When I heard my voice, I looked up, and there, high atop the auditorium on its roof stood Nick, dressed in leotards and waving at me.

“What are you doing up there?” I asked.

“We’re on break from dance class. We snuck out here because it was so hot in the studios. You should come on up.”

I did and Nick gave me a tour of the buildings, the studios, and took me up the stairway that lead to the roof. It was a bright late spring day, and we enjoyed the view and had fun yelling down at the passers-by.

Whenever he saw me after that, he greeted me like an old friend and we’d go somewhere and he’d tell me some fascinating story about his life. He always encouraged me in whatever I was reading, listening to, or interested in. He loved languages, literature, wine, women and above all, dance. When Nick learned that my ancestors came from Hungary, he started calling me a “hot-blooded Magyar.”

Needless to say, Nick captivated me, but he always puzzled me. I could not figure why he took such an interest in me. Especially since I came from such a boring background. Yet in the subsequent years he became my most constant friend. He always encouraged me and gave me almost brotherly advice. We raised families and our kids were close and we used to visit each other on summer vacations or call each other and talk for hours as our careers progressed.  Unfortunately, we’ve grown apart, but I still remember all the good times we spent together.  He was one of the people who taught me how to be human and the value of self-expression.

Is there a thread here running from Vonnegut through Nick to Hindemeth? Perhaps it has to do with the need to embrace life and express oneself artistically. I don’t see how one can get through life otherwise.


Downlad MP3s or CD of Hindemith: Symphonie ‘Mathis Der Maler’ / Trauermusik / Symphonic Metamorphosis


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