Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Concerto Number 5 in A, K. 219 “Turkish”

Earlier, I wrote about Mozart’s Violin Concerto Number 3 in G. Mozart wrote Number 5 in A in December of 1775, three months after the third, when he was a mere 14 years old! It’s hard to imagine someone so young could turn out a work so mature and full of depth.

Peter Gay wrote a short biography of Mozart a while back. I heard him speaking about it on a local call in show at the time. He told some interesting stories about Mozart and his father. One caller asked whether Gay thought that any child, given an education like Mozart’s father had given him would achieve the level of genius that little Wolfie attained. Gay said he couldn’t speak to that, but he could speak to the upbringing that Leopold Mozart had given his son, which does not seem so enlightened. Leopold raised and instructed his son for the purpose that many people still do all over the world–to be a source of income. What’s more, had Mozart lived in modern times, he probably would have sued his father for mental abuse, as other stars have done.

Gay told of how Mozart’s father, then choir master at the court in Salzburg, made his wife take Wolfgang on a concert tour to Paris, when his duties at the court prohibited him from doing so. They stopped in Muenster, where Mozart fell in love with a young girl. His father wrote him terrible, angry letters saying that his job was to go to Paris to make money. When they got to the City of Lights, his mother contracted a fever and died. Leopold wrote to blame her death on his son’s wanton behavior.

So in a way, Mozart managed to become great despite his father’s upbringing. The perfect pitch, the near-photographic musical memory, the ability to convey deep feelings were probably traits that he had been born with, just as some are taller, faster, or better at math than others. Had he not received a musical education, perhaps he might have become a musician anyway, able to play by ear. But the exposure to music gave him the tools to let his genius come out. It still strikes me odd that people think one’s ability is solely the result of either nature or nurture.

The Violin Concerto Number 5 starts with a fast “allegro” tempo, in which the orchestra states the theme and then lopes along with an upbeat mood. Odd, however, is how Mozart introduces the solo violin–with a slow adagio that introduces a completely new theme instead of recapping the one the orchestra used. After this mysterious interlude, the violin then launches into a vigorous restatement of the orchestral theme.

The second movement is a long, slow and beautiful adagio. The last movement has garnered a lot of attention over the centuries. It starts with a lovely minuet that carries you away with its beauty, before coming to a quiet closing. Then comes a stately march, before he returns to the minuet theme. For the rest of the piece Mozart goes back and forth between these tempos and a Turkish-sounding “rondo,” which is where the subtitle comes from. Eventually he returns to the beautiful strains of the minuet and draws to a close in a triumphant vein before the last few measures when he slows it back down to the beautiful, controlled theme from the opening. Not bad for a teenager.

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Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

One of the first times I listened to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, (“Song of the Earth”) was around November 1975 and I was a junior in college. The song from it that I’ve chosen today is called “A Lonely on in Autumn,” but I’ve also included a more upbeat song, “Of Youth,” below with a description of when I first heard this work.

Between 1908-1909, Mahler wrote this six-movement symphony for voices around a selection of seven Chinese poems from a collection that was published around the time period. Having been through a three major life events–being fired as director of an opera, the death of his daughter, and his diagnosis of a heart defect–the poems spoke to him about the beauty and transient nature of life.

Some of the orchestral work reminds me a bit of Mahler’s First Symphony and Songs of a Wayfarer. And writers have noted that these pieces, coming at the end of Mahler’s life, are a perfect melding of his skills of a composer of both symphonic and vocal music.

The poems also reflect Mahler’s fascination with death, which comes through in the titles of four of the six songs: “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow,” “The Solitary in Autumn,” “The Drunkard in Spring,” and “The Farewell.” He does include happier sounding songs, “Of Youth” and “Of Beauty.” “Of Beauty” paints a vivid picture of young girls picking flowers by the water’s edge. It has a haunting feeling to it. “Of Youth” is more upbeat and has this memorable line: “Friends, handsomely clad, drink and chatter.”

The last song, “Der Abschied” (The Farewell), narrates the poets saying good bye to this life and friends and making ready to die. The music varies from very sparse single instrument-harp, celste, mandolin-accompanying the solo contralto voice, to lush, post-impressionistic swells full of Germanic Romanticism. It would be a bit over the top, were it not for the serene ending, which accompanies the words that depict the cyclic nature of life:

My heart is serene and awaits its final hour.
The well-loved earth everywhere
Blooms in spring and grows green anew.
Everywhere and always the horizon glimmers in blue…

Download MP3s or buy CD of Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

A Christmas Pudding
by Kurt Nemes

In November of 1975, Thom Klem announced that his plum pudding was ready to steam. A few months before, Thom, an afficianado of just about everything–art, music, food, literature and film–decided to make a plum pudding, and what an elaborate and chthonian mixture he had produced!  He then arranged to hold a pre-Thanksgiving dinner at the house of David T*, who had once lived in my dorm and who still hung out with our artsy-campy clique. The dinner would take place on a Saturday, two weekends before Thanksgiving.

Thom invited me to go with him the day of the dinner to help him prepare the pudding. David would be away and Thom wanted some company. I agreed and then he told me I had to go early in the morning. When I asked why, he said that he had to steam the pudding for over six hours. I was incredulous. How could it take so long. “That’s what the recipe says. It’s a really dense mass and steam cooks it while keeping it moist.”

The Friday before the dinner, we had a drunken rave up. I don’t remember anything about the party, probably because I drank to excess, but there had to be one because I recall having a hangover when I went with Thom the next morning to start preparing the pudding. Though it started out a bit rough, it turned out to be quite a pleasant day. It was the first of a number of occasions in I acted like a kind of apprentice while Thom taught me how to cook.

On our way to David’s house, Thom said we had to stop off at the liquor store. He said he had to buy a bottle of stout. “What for?” I asked. “You mix it in before steaming the pudding.” I had never had stout before, but I seem to remember having read about it in a story in James Joyce’s The Dubliners. The name conjured up for me men sitting in a smoky room, before a fire on a cold, rainy autumn evening talking about politics.

When we got to the house, David was stuffing the turkey. He was going out for the day, and told us to put it in later in the afternoon. We set about getting the pudding ready.

In addition to specifying the stout, Thom’s Larousse Gastronomique said to moisten the pudding with four eggs. He stirred this dark, heady-smelling mixture around and then tipped it out into a round bowl. In England, he said, they have special pudding basins with tight fitting lids. Thom improvised a cover using a saucepan lid which he sealed tight by wrapping a tea towel around its perimeter. He then placed the basin in a big covered pot partially filled with boiling water.

We sat down and spent the afternoon drinking the rest of the stout, listening to music and discussing everything under the sun. We listened to Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.”  Every so often, Thom would go over, check the pudding and add a little more water to the pot. Later we put the turkey in the oven and the smell of roasting fowl started to waft through the house. It was a cold November afternoon, and the moisture from the pudding steamed up the window and made us feel all warm and cozy.

Eventually, people started to arrive-Cynthia, Mark, Michael, Linda, Liz and her boyfriend, recently returned from France, John. They started preparing various dishes–sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cranberry relish, salads and such. The wine started flowing, people started to listen to their favorite music.

By the time we ate, everyone was in a pretty mellow mood. Near the end of the meal, Thom and I went to the kitchen to turn out the pudding and make the hard sauce. For this he combined butter, sugar and rum, which he whipped together. He heated a bit of whiskey, carried the pudding to the dining room, poured the whiskey over the dessert, and I lit it on fire. Eerie blue flames leapt about in the darkened room and everyone clapped as he set it on the table. Each mouthful exploded in a holographic picture of the entirety of British culture. Yes, a good time was had by all and to this day, every plum pudding and Christmas fruitcake reminds me of that wonderful ritual that Thom created for us that day.

Here’s a more uplifting song from “Das Lied,” entitled “Von der Jungend” (Of Youth).  The words are here and remind me of that youthful Thanksgiving in 1975.

Franz Schubert: Piano Quintet in A major D667, “Trout”

You often find the “Trout” Quintet among those lists of 100 greatest recordings or basic libraries. Schubert wrote this piece in 1819 while vacationing in upper Austria with a group of musicians. One of them, a wannabe cellist named Sylvester Paumgartner, at whose place they were staying, commissioned Schubert to write this quintet based on the melody of one of Schubert’s own songs, “The Trout.”

This song tells of how Schubert was once walking along by a beautiful stream when he spied a trout at play in the water. Schubert contemplates the beauty of the scene when an angler appears and starts fishing for the trout. Eventually the fisherman hooks the trout and Schubert is left lamenting his sad fate. The first movement of this works starts with a rolling, bubbly phrase, repeated by the piano, which perfectly captures the impression of the music.

I first heard this piece while living in the French House in my junior year of college, in 1975. I thought it was quite pretty. When I mentioned it to my girlfriend, Linda, who was majoring in string bass, she said something like “Ugh! That piece is so overplayed.” After that, for a long time, I did not bother to listen to it. Then, years later, after I was married, my wife heard it playing on the local classical station. Suddenly she started singing these words along to the famous melody:

As by a crystal brooklet,
I wandered on my way
Among the gentle ripples
I spied a trout at play
As here and there he darted
As swift as swift could be
Was never fish so lively
Nor frolicsome as he.
Was never fish so lively
Nor frolicsome as he.

But skillful was the angler
With cruel delight
He sullied all the crystal water
And hid the fish from sight
Alas, by that deception
The fish, the enticing bait, sought out
And I was left lamenting
The fate of that poor trout.
And I was left lamenting
The fate of that poor trout.

Here’s the entire piece:

It’s a very Romantic conceit to write an impassioned song about the death of a fish. Still, if you respect life, where do you draw the line between which beings are not okay to kill and which are?  The Jainists in India have carried this so far as to wear masks over their mouths lest they breath in microbes that their natural antibodies would destroy. That might sound absurd, but there is something dear about Schubert writing this piece and it’s definitely sweet to have it serenaded to you by a beautiful woman.

I originally wrote a version of this about 15 years ago.  Since then, that marriage went the way of Schubert’s trout.  Much water has flowed by.  Our kids have grown up and moved away.  We’re both remarried and have tried to remain friends.  Life is full of challenges, hurts, slights, setbacks, and sometimes we see these things as injustices.  The artist tries to make sense of all this, commenting on the struggles and pain that life sometimes brings.  Schubert juxtaposed the beauty of nature with the cruelty of man’s despoiling it.  And he turned it into this beautiful music.

Buy CD or Download MP3s of Schubert: Trout Quintet

Johann Sebastian Bach: Partita Number 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004

I am embarrassed to have little to relate about when I first heard this piece. In my previous post, when writing about Partita Number 3, I mentioned how in the dorm room next to mine at the French House in 1075 there lived a guy who claimed to be a descendant of Richard Wagner and who was a composition major. Shortly after he moved in, so did his girl friend, and she used to play a recording of the “Chaconne” of the “Partita Number 2″ ad nauseum.  So today I’ve chosen the third movement, the “Sarabande.”  If you want to hear the full “Partita Number 2,” I’ve put in a recording by Milstein.  This next link is a performance of the “Sarabande” by Gil Shaham.

It turns out that the “Chaconne” has captured the hearts and minds of quite a number of musicians and music lovers over the years and it has been transcribed for many different instruments. I still prefer the purity and razor-sharp clarity of a solo violin, however, and will stick to the Milstein recording of this piece.

Unfortunately, over exposure to the “Chaconne” made me ignore the second partita, which is unfortunate, because the other four movements have much to offer. The first movment is called “Alemanda,” (which means “German”.) This was a dance form popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. It has four beats to the measure and always starts out with a short note or several short notes. It is usually serious but not ponderous and of a moderate speed. This Alemanda seems to me quite intricate and complex and the melody goes on for an astonishingly long time before repeating itself. The even beat gives it almost as clock-like, inexorable rhythm.

Once again, Bach’s genius astounds me. My only hope is that one day I will be able to listen to this work again and not think of the girlfriend of an ex-dorm mate with bad housekeeping habits.

Here’s the full “Partita No. 2″ played by Nathan Milstein, by the way.  Pure heaven.

MP3 or CDs of Bach: Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

Darius Milhaud: Scaramouche

I just heard this piece performed by two teenagers on a radio program called “From The Top.”  The melody is not new to me, but I always assumed it was by Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” or something by Louis Gottschalk, maybe the first American in Paris.

Anyway, I was happy to hear that it was Darius Milhaud, who was one of “The Six,” that is six 20th Century composers active in Paris early last century.  They included, Georges Auric (1899–1983), Louis Durey (1888–1979), Arthur Honegger (1892–1955), Darius Milhaud (1892–1974), Francis Poulenc (1899–1963), Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983).

This is fun, uplifting music and if you explore more of Milhaud, whom I’ve written about before, I’m sure you’ll be enchanted by him as well.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Partita Number 3 in E Major, BWV 1001

This piece dates from 1720 and is found in a collection of three sonatas and partitas that Bach composed for solo violin. Supposedly these pieces contain some of the most difficult passages ever written.

I have only heard one recording of them, which I originally checked out of my college dorm’s library in 1975–one by Nathan Milstein. His recording has been labeled by some as patrician and elegant, but he makes them sound so gosh-darned easy. I find them so pure and full of a kind of rationalist light and clarity that I’ve never wanted to hear another recording of them.

The Partita Number 3 in E Major is actually my favorite, though I have already written about the “Chaconne” above and in another entry, which comes from the Partita Number 2 in D Minor. Partitas were solo works composed along the lines of a suite, which contains several movements based on dance forms. Partita Number 3 starts out with a wonderfully upbeat prelude, which Bach recycled from his own “Simphonia” to Cantata Number 29. The second movement is a very soulful and moving meditation, called “Loure.” A gavotte and rondo comprise the third movement, which lifts the spirit again. The last four movements, two menuets, a bourree, and a jig, for the most part continue in the same upbeat vein, though with a reserved dignity.

I discovered this piece through some patrician prigs who lived in my dorm. Here’s how it happened. At the end of the fall semester of 1975, I put in for a room transfer within the French House, the dorm where I lived. My end room, located next to the entrance and stairwell was just too noisy. My request was granted and in January, I moved into a much quieter room a few doors down from the lounge.

Another student moved in to the room next to me. On his door, he had posted a little hand-written name tag. It said: Tim W-S*. After getting settled, I went over to greet him. He was a tall, thin guy, with close cropped hair and a large forehead. He told me he was a composition major in the school of music. So, jokingly, I asked him if he was related to a famous composer with the same last name as his. “As a matter of fact, I am.” When I asked how he had gotten interested in composition, he told me that his father had written music for television. When I asked what pieces, he said “The theme from The Flintstones.” I used to religiously watch that program every Friday night as a kid, and can still sing the words to it.

Tim had a bit of an aristocratic air to him, and didn’t seem interested in mixing with the others at the French House. I used to see him almost every time the phone rang, however. Our rooms were connected by a very small phone box and we shared the phone. When the phone rang, one of us would get it. If it were for the other, we’d knock on the inside of the door on the opposite side and pass the phone through the hole to the other.

After a month or two, Tim started dating a girl, who eventually moved into his room. They had a few annoying habits, which the phone box played a part in, and which sometimes made me long for my old room. First, the girlfriend used to love a piece by Bach, which I have already written about, his Chaconne. She used to put on an album, which I think was a guitar transcription by Segovia, and play it incessantly. Sometimes she would leave her side of the phone box open and the little channel would amplify the music as is passed into my room.

Their second annoying habit was, well, downright gross. Almost every night, they ordered in pizza from Dominos. On the first night, the aroma that drifted through the phone box was pleasant. They might have even offered me a slice. Over the weeks, however, the aroma coming through the box started to change. It clearly communicated the fact that they rarely cleaned their room. It had the rank pong of old, moldering pizza cartons and unwashed laundry. I used to dread when the phone rang, for when the door popped open, the stench that blew through would almost make me retch.

My memory of how this was resolved is a bit vague. I think Tim and his girlfriend eventually moved out. On the other side of them lived our French resident assistant, Jean-Marc. One day he told me that his room had an infestation of cockroaches. When the couple had moved, maybe the vermin had migrated to JM’s room in search of food. Fortunately, the cement wall between their room and mine acted as a barrier. Ah, the fond memories of those college days.

Still, they had impeccable taste in music and another piece that I do remember welcoming when it wafted through the phone box, was today’s piece, Bach’s Partita Number 3 in E Major for Unaccompanied Violin.

Once I had been bitten by Milstein’s recording, I had a bit of a dilemma. You could only find them on a three-disk set issued by Deutsche Grammophon. At 10 bucks a disk in 1975 for a DG recording, that put the set right out of my price range. About nine years later, however, I stumbled across a little record store in Lafayette, Louisiana that had given up on trying to sell classical records. To clean out their stock, they were selling off all classical LPs at over 50% off. And there, in the Bach bin, was the set of Milstein, which I snapped up. I pulled it out in the 1990s to listen to it and noticed a number of pops. Shortly thereafter, I found a set on cassettes at a garage sales for about 10 cents a tape. For a while, I had a clean set, and could enjoy them again. But since then, cassette tapes gave rise to CDs, which in turn gave way to online mp3s, and I keep getting tired of having to pay again and again to listen to something I paid for once already.

I tried looking Up Tim on the Internet today with Google. There’s no trace of anyone by that name. Worse, when I looked up who actually wrote the theme song for “The Flinstones” it was the music director for Hanna-Barbera, a one Hoyt Curtin. Wikipedia says he only had one son, whose name was not Tim. So not only was Tim a pig, he was a liar as well.

Hoyt Curtin Biography

Bud the CDs or download MP3s of Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

Michael Praetorius: Terpsichore

What better way to snap oneself out of a blue funk than to dance? I chose today’s work because it is one of those albums that always cheers me. One day in my first or second year of college, I heard a piece on the local classical station that I couldn’t believe was “serious” music.

The announcer said it came from a collection of dances, entitled Terpsichore by Michael Praetorius. But I had heard the piece in another form, maybe in a cartoon or some children’s show popular in my youth. I tracked the album down and immediately bought it. It was one of the first albums that introduced me to music from the Renaissance, which had a bit of a renaissance itself about ten 20 years ago in the US.

Praetorius lived from 1571 – 1621 in and around Dresden. The son of a pastor, Praetorius was a prolific composer, churning out some 1244 songs. Terpsichore is important because it was a compilation of dance songs for instruments only at a time when composition was moving from predominantly vocal based works to instrumental. Composers were starting to write for instruments alone as they were being refined to have truer and more reliable sounds. This album introduced me to a number of the older instruments, like crumhorns, rackets and sackbuts, whose croaky, wheezy and raspberry sounds I’ve come to love. Just what you need to blow the blues away.

Recently, I found this television performance by the New York Pro Music under the direction of Noah Greenberg.


It must date from late 1950s or early 1960s US television.  Back then TV was new and people were touting it as a way of brining culture and mass education into the living room of families.  People thought the Internet would do the same thing again about 20 years ago.  What happened?



Praetorius Biography

Download MP3s or buy CD of Praetorius: Dances from Terpsichore

Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations

Bach supposedly wrote these 30 variations on a simple theme for the insomniacal Count Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador to the kingdom of Saxony. Musical scholars agree they represent the pinnacle of baroque keyboard technique. Their name became associated with the count’s harpsichordist, Johann Goldberg, who was only 14 when they were written. Keyserlingk was so pleased with the work that he gave Bach a goblet filled with 100 Louis D’Or.

I will leave it to others to analyze the music, for example this page is devoted to the nine canons in the variations. In addition to canons, Bach also took the melody and turned it into fugues, arias, French overtures and a quodlibet. These variations are known for being killers–one for example requires the pianist to play with both hands crossed all the way through. They are intricate and meticulously crafted, and though Bach wrote few variations on themes, these are considered the text book examples of how to do so.

A couple of years ago, I was in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in Accra, Ghana, when someone started playing the Goldberg Variations baby grand piano in the small lobby next to the bar.  It blew me away, of course, to hear it in such an unexpected place, but even more of a treat was being able to sit almost beside the pianist and watch him play.   It turns out he was just the accompaniast for an American soprano who was performing that night.

I first heard the piece, when I was living in the French House of Indiana University, in 1975.

There was an irony to living at the French House–few people living there actually made a point of speaking French. It took too much effort and no one really policed us. A native French resident assistant (RA) did live there both of my years there, but he didn’t have the time to go snooping in on every conversation. During the first year, when the RA, Olivier, did try to get the other members of my clique to speak French, they would do so with the most hideously American accent, and that would shut him up.

Once a week, the French Department would encourage other native speakers and students to come to our cafeteria and sit at the French table, and that was more rigorous. Or they would organize lectures and slide shows in the lounge of our dorm. It was still intimidating to me, who’d never been abroad, and who’d only been lectured to in a kind of academic French, which as different from spoken French as Dickens is to American rap vernacular.

There was a guy in my dorm who was nearly bi-lingual, and I once witnessed Olivier correct him when he made an almost imperceptible pronunciation mistake. It wasn’t like it prevented him from understanding the message, it was sheer one-upsmanship and linguistic (and even cultural) chauvinism. You see, no French person can bear to hear anyone butcher his language.

If you want to learn to speak a langauge, one of the worst ways to go about it is to study it in college. The best way is to have a love affair with a native speaker. The second best way is to go to the country. In university, they usually start with grammar, which is unfortunate, since language changes more rapidly than compilers of grammar books and dictionaries can keep up with. Psycholinguists have shown that learning a language requires mastering a complex blend of psycho-motor, cognitive, and conceptual skills some of which atrophy by the time we get into our late teens. We can learn a second language as an adult, but rarely well enough to be taken as a native speaker, and it takes a long time.

The reason I bring this up is that–despite this psychological fact–years ago when I was learning French, native speakers would not cut you any slack at all when trying to learn their language. To the credit of the French educational system, school children in France are taught to revere their language and use it effectively and efficiently both orally and in writing. Every year, the French newspaper,  Le Monde, publishes what is considered to be the best final essay which every high school student must pass in order to matriculate to college. Some of these read like philosophical tracts.

Being shy, that pretty much sucked all the enthusiasm out of my trying to speak French, and I didn’t learn to do so until after graduate school, when I went to Algeria to teach English. Algeria, being a former French colony, had a bilingual population, and being Muslims, prided themselves on being good hosts. They would never correct you, and so there I became comfortable enough to loosen my tongue and made more progress there in 6 months than I had in four years of university study.

This might make it sound like I have something against the French. One thing everybody has to learn is to rely on themselves–their inherent worth–despite how other people react. That was something that I learned only 20 years later and forget from time to time. Other people were much thicker skinned than I was back in the 1970s and learned to speak French.

The French Resident Assistant, who moved into the French House in the fall of 1975, ended up becoming one of my better friends and I still keep in touch, looking him up whenever I am in Paris, where he now lives. His name is Jean-Marc Fernandez, and perhaps we became friends because he actually grew up in Algeria, coming to France after his father was killed there during the revolution in 1962.

Like so many French, Jean-Marc had a lust for all facets of life–the intellectual as well as the artistic. He had come to Indiana University to work on a PHd in political science and business. He spoke Spanish and could hold his own in German and Russian. JM had done his masters degree in American literature and was better-read than I was in the authors of my own country. He also loved film and classical music, preferring, of course, French composers.

The first day he moved into the French, he was surprised to see that an old friend of his, Rosemary Bourgault had moved into a room on the girl’s floor. They immediately became an item and eventually married. But again, he had eclectic tastes and I believe I heard today’s piece, Bach’s Goldberg Variations in his room. It was around that time period that someone had made a film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Slaughterhouse Five which used some of the pieces from the Variations in the sound track. Jean-Marc liked the movie and I think had a copy of the recording.

Glenn Gould seems to be the foremost interpreter of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and I recently heard this 1955 recording he made.

It’s in mono, but I like the youthful interpretation.  Compare it to the earlier version and tell me if you prefer one to the other.

Buy CD or download MP3 of Bach: Goldberg Variations

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.

<a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0000041Q2/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0000041Q2&linkCode=as2&tag=themusalm-20″>Buy CD or MP3s of Verdi – Rigoletto / Sutherland, Pavarotti, Milnes, LSO, Bonynge</a><img src=”http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=themusalm-20&l=as2&o=1&a=B0000041Q2&#8243; width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” style=”border:none !important; margin:0px !important;” />


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.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pérotin


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