George Gershwin An American in Paris

In the movie, Felinni’s Roma, an actor represents the director, newly arrived in Rome after World War II. The young man walks around Rome, his eyes wide with awe and wonder as he tries to absorb the sights, sounds, smells and physical beauty of the city and its inhabitants. How different from his sleepy, provincial seaside hometown. That was the way I felt on alighting from the train that brought me from Charles De Gaulle airport to the Gare du Nord in Paris in January 1977.

What better piece to write about to mark my arrival in the City Of Lights, than Gershwin’s An American in Paris? Gershwin wrote the piece in Paris in 1928, scored it later that year in Vienna, and premiered it in New York.

It starts out with a wonderful travelling sections, with a xylophone capturing perfectly the frenetic footsteps of pedestrians and the horn section imitating the blasts of taxi horns. For the premiere, Gershwin actually brought Parisian taxi horns with him, which he had bought on his trip. Despite its name, the inspiration and tone of its sections are more influenced by American jazz and rhythms than anything Parisian. By this time anyway, most European composers were aping American jazz themes and rhythms anyway.

Gershwin biography

Every time I hear this piece, I smile as I think back to my first day in Paris.

Starting in the 1950s, America started to systematically destroy its passenger railway system. It began with the commerce secretary, Charles Wilson, saying “What’s good for GM is good for the country.” Congress, kow-towing to the Big Three auto makers, then built Interstate highways and tore out tram lines. When I was 11 in 1966, my parents took my brother, Ken, and me on a train trip from Chicago to Denver. By 1977, Amtrak was almost bankrupt and most grand train stations had closed up.

In Europe, trains were very much alive. The Gare du Nord was particularly international because it serviced the trains to and from England. Inside swarmed thousands of people of all ages, ethnicities and dress, each one representing a chapter out of France’s colonial history. Subsaharan Africans strode around hawking beads and trinkets. North African men, dressed in jalabas, strode along proudly, a string of veiled women following behind. Tunisians and Moroccans in dark blue work uniforms scuttled around pushing baggage carts, dust bins, and brooms. Haughty French women in furs climbed into first class Wagon-Lits, their debonair husbands following, tipping the porters. Old ladies with pinched faces sold train tickets behind thick glass windows. Gravelly-voiced, middle-age men, their faces pock-marked and heavily lined, a Gauloise hanging off the lip, barked out the prices of magazines and newspapers, their hands shooting out to grab a bill and dispense change. Gypsy women, a toddler in tow, an infant tightly swaddled in a bundle, thrust dirty hands out to beg for money.

It took me a while to work out a plan of action. At a tobacconist, I bought a copy of Paris par Arrondissement, a wonderfully indexed book of maps, bus routes, subway lines of each section of the city. It still being early in the morning, I decided to walk the from the train station to the Left Bank. It didn’t look all that far on the map. My suitcase in hand, I started off.

At the right end of the train station, I found the Rue Du Faubourg Saint Denis which the maps showed ending at the Seine. As luck would have it, it turned out to be market day, and this road was lined with every type of shop devoted to the alimentation of the Parisian population. It was time to play the gawking, slack-jawed country bumpkin again. In my defense, however, from all sides came inputs to stimulate every sensory receptor. One section of the street was given over to cheese shops. From floor to ceiling, shelves held cheese in every size, shape and color. There were huge, hundred-pound wheels of Emmenthal, Gruyere, and Raclette. There were logs, patties, mounds and balls of Chevre, which smelled of goat. Countless small round wooden boxes held Camemberts and Bries, each with different amounts of fat. Port Salut. Pont Eveque. Roquefort. It was like a Monty Python cheese shop sketch, except they had everything!

A little bit further down the street, I came across the butchers. These were narrow bright shops, with large windows and white tile everywhere. Huge sides of beef hung on great hooks. The butchers, wearing blood-stained white smocks and holding machete-sized knives deftly carved fine filets, entrecotes, Chateaubriand, and onglets. Next came the pork butchers followed by the horse butchers. Further on, I came to a shop in whose window hung pheasants, hares, boar, and quail. Nearby were the chicken butchers in which you could buy plucked, unplucked, dressed and undressed birds.

The sidewalks of the street were only about a foot wide and, near the butchers, covered with wet sawdust. A sluice of water ran down the gutter and sometimes I’d see a chicken head or foot go floating by. At the street corners, little weather-beaten North African men controlled the flow of water and used brooms, made out of long twigs, to push the debris along.

Carrying the suitcase had not been a good plan. By the time I reached the Porte St. Denis, I felt its weight dragging on me, so I decided to take the subway into the Latin Quarter to find a hotel. This was back in the days before some genius started putting wheels on suitcases, and taking my big, hulking bag through the various turnstiles and up and down endless stairways of the subway proved even more tiring. The subway itself impressed me however, and today, the Paris metro remains one of my favorite in the world. They used to say that in Paris you are never more than 100 yards from a subway stop, and I don’t think there was ever a time when it did not take me where I wanted to go. The subway had its own smell–tobacco mixed with burning carbon, perspiration, underground must, urine and coffee. Not exactly heady, but you soon get used to it.

I entered the subway at the station called Strasbourg St. Denis. This was on the line that ran from the north gate of Paris, at the Porte de Clignancourt to the South at Porte d’Orleans. It runs under the Seine, stops on the Ile de la Cite, and runs through the Latin Quarter. I alit at the Place de L’Odeon, which stood about midway between the river and the Jardins Du Luxembourg, on the Boulevard St. Germain. This had been the focal point for the lost generation in the 1930s and seemed like a good place to start.

The escalator deposed me in the dead center of the Place. It was like arriving in Shangri-La. Down the Rue de l’Odeon, I could see the famous theatre and at the end, the gates of the Jardins. On that street, a rich American girl named Sylvia Beach opened a little bookstore and lending library called Shakespeare and Company. Among its customers were the names that changed the shape of 20th Century English and American literature–James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams.  The picture below shows me in the summer of 2012 standing outside of bookstore that has replaced Sylvia Beach’s place.

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Crossing St. Germain Across the street, I spied, “Chez Procope,” the oldest café and restaurant in Paris, where the likes of Diderot and Voltaire used to meet.  I continued in the direction of the river, eventually turning onto a road with an ominous name–Rue de l’Echaude, (Road of the Scalded Person.) It led me vaguely toward the river and the Ecole des Beaux Arts and was fairly quiet. Near the end of it, I looked up and saw a sign for a hotel–Providence Hotel. It was providential in price–it ran about 22 Francs a night, which was just under five dollars back then. The concierge led me up a tiny winding stairwell to my room, which was the only one on my landing. It was a trapezoidal-shaped cube barely large enough for a bed, an armoire, a little writing desk and a tiny sink by the head of the bed. A small window looked out on a high, narrow and gray courtyard whose only purpose seemed to be a haven for pigeons. The room smelled of pigeon dung. I was so tired I took it, feeling not unpleased at the price and its garret-like quality. What a great place to play the role of the starving artist. Completely fatigued, I flopped down on the bed and fell asleep immediately.

I slept until the late afternoon and went out for a stroll. It happened to be market day in this neighborhood as well. Once again I marveled at the presentation of food, all of it fresh and very few things pre-packaged or processed. The fish mongers had created huge ice bergs of crushed ice and laid out red mullets, plaice, sole, flounder, cod, all types of shrimp–small, large, jumbo, smoked, red and gray, Dublin bay prawns, lobsters, salmon, trout, winkles, mussels, clams, oysters, sea snails, octopus and squid. Here I also saw for the first time fruit and vegetable stalls that put my Midwestern farmer’s markets to shame with variety and quality.

I decided to walk over to the Ile de la Cite and visit the grounds of the Louvre, the huge palace that had been turned into the world famous art museum. On my way, I passed the Place de l’Institut, which houses the Academie Francaise in a 17th Century grand, colonnaded structure with a bronze dome. There I crossed the river on the Pont Des Arts, a pedestrian bridge. It was getting late, the sun was sinking so I hurried through the courtyard of the Louvre, and made my way back to bridge. As I crossed, the clouds broke and the setting sun shot a few golden rays down on the Institut and the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Just the thing to buoy my spirits.

I wandered through the market, picked up a log of goat cheese, some oranges, a loaf of bread and made it back to my hotel. There I flipped on the radio and tried to follow a very intellectual discussion on the arts and politics before falling asleep.

Johann Sebastian Bach Brandenburg Concerto Number 5 in D Major

I chose today’s piece, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 5 because the first movement always gives me the impression of forward movement. It would be a perfect accompaniment to a scene from a movie where a horse-drawn coach, pulled by a chestnut gelding, trundles along a French country lane. (Or a 21 year-old on his first visit to France–see an excerpt from my memoir below). It always puts me in a light and happy mood.

The liner notes to my old vinyl recording of this concerto, conducted by Pablo Casals, states that it is the only one of the six Brandenburgs to treat the keyboard as an integral member of the featured instruments. In the others that have a keyboard, it is merely played as a continuo, that is a harmonic accompaniment. In the fifth concerto, however, the keyboard definitely the most important instrument. On the recording I have, the keyboard part was performed on piano by Rudolf Serkin, a rather famous pianist in the second third of this century.

Bach gives the second movement over to an unaccompanied trio consisting of flute, violin and keyboard. Serkin, I believe, was noted for his chamber playing, and on this recording, the trio plays the slow and pensive “affetuoso” movement with grace and feeling.

Bach gets our feet tapping again in the third movement with another fast tempo, this time a gigue. It starts out as a round with the violin stating the twelve-note theme of a fugue. Next, the flute joins in with the theme followed next by the piano. Finally the rest of orchestra picks up the fourth voice in the fugue and the piece continues on its rapid way, each instruments weaving in and out and around one another in an intricate pattern. About, three quarters of the way through, the fugue ends, and so Back restarts it again in the same order-violin, flute, piano and orchestra.

I was just thinking how intricate the last movement was, and how complex it must be for an orchestra to play. But then I remembered that he wrote two-part, three-part, four-part, and five-part inventions for keyboard. How taxing that must be for the poor piano player, you might think. But what about his great organ pieces, like the Tocatta and Fugue in D minor in which the organist also uses each leg as well on the foot keyboard! Bach managed to build such complex and revolutionary pieces out of basics forms of his day. They were new and revolutionary and yet stood on the solid ground of the tradition in which he grew up. See, you can be creative and interesting without tearing everything down.

Download MP3 or buy CDs of Johann Sebastian Bach: 6 Brandenburg Concertos / 4 Orchestral Suites – The English Concert / Trevor Pinnock

Biography

Landing in France

The 747 circled lazily over the French countryside. I must confess that my nose was pressed against the window as we descended and the swatches and daubs of colors turned into farmland and small towns. I had flown before, of course, and was therefore used to seeing shopping malls, mass-produced houses made of ticky-tacky, and industrial-sized farms from above. But seeing France from the air took my by surprise. It was as if the whole fabric of the landscape–and hence how one saw the world–were woven out of different material.

The small villages sat at the crossroads of two roads, lined by hedgerows that ran through the fields. These town had an organic appearance. Vaguely round, sometimes bisected by a creek or small river, they were a complex interweaving of trees, honey-colored stone walls, gray roofs and winding lanes. Sometimes, at the apex of one of the small conurbations, I’d see the shiny gray slate roof of a church and its spire pointing skyward. It was like looking down on an entirely different and ancient but vibrant world.

For the first time in my life, I had a feeling of stepping into the great river of history and somehow being connected to it. It was a feeling of homecoming. For some reason, American life and popular culture have seemed somewhat foreign to me. Most of the really successful people here say we must look to the future and those who can’t change and adapt are doomed. Unfortunately that usually gets interpreted as rejecting all the traditions, history and disciplines that got us here in the first place. Perhaps growing up as the grandson of immigrants made me feel more connected to the “old world.” Maybe that’s retrogressive of me, but I see the wasteful alternative played out on a daily basis as people constantly reinvent the wheel.

I soon learned France was a place that was both keenly aware of its past and could embrace the trends of the future as well. Take the airport where I landed–Charles De Gaulle. In January of 1977 when I first landed there, it was one of the most modern airports in the world, and it still seems that way to me in my mind’s eye. Your plane lands at one of the satellite terminals and you take incredibly long moving walkways to the main terminal where you collect your bags. Inside, you must take an escalator inside a glass tube that passes through a central circular atrium, like the veins of some huge organism.

The second thing that struck me about France was how it smelled. As soon as the door opened into the terminal a pungent smell met my nose. It was a mixture of the smells of coffee, chocolate, real butter, perspiration and the ubiquitous black tobacco cigarettes–Gauloise and Gitanes.

After gawking like a tourist for about an hour and passing through customs, I managed to find out that a bus would take me to a train that would drop me at the Gare du Nord. While waiting for the bus, I walked over to a little café cum news stand and bought a croissant. The semester before, my friend Thom Klem, had taught me how they make croissants. You make a pastry dough, roll it out, spread it with a layer of butter, fold it up, roll it out again, and repeat this procedure a few more times. The layers of fat and dough are what makes them so light and rich at the same time.

The croissant I bought during my first hour in France was a bit of a disappointment, but I savored the moment anyway. I climbed on the train at Charles De Gualle airport, which slid through the small track-side towns, then suburbs and finally past the high rise apartment buildings of the 18 arrondissement. Here I was, a bumpkin from Indiana, thousands of miles away from home in a place where no one at all knew me. It was now up to me to find my way through this new world all on my own. I had to find a place to stay, get myself enrolled in classes and manage my funds to last until June. What a wonderful journey I was beginning.

George Crumb: Ancient Voices of Children

The year before going abroad for the first time in 1977, I had started listening to more and more 20th Century “classical” music. My interest in this music probably started with Stravinsky, spread to Bartok, and lead me to the hardcore German atonalists-Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

Fancying myself on alternate days as something of an avant gardiste, an anti-bourgeoisie, and even a Dadaist, I listened to these pieces more for their philosophical and intellectual interest rather than how pleasing they sounded. This type of music became so reductionist at the end that composers often would write on a page of sheet music the instruction: “Improvise!”

Another famous composer, John Cage wrote a piece called 4′ 33″ which consisted of a pianist sitting still at a piano not playing for four minutes and 33 seconds. Around that time, I began to find modern works too taxing, and the public and composers must have done so as well, because in the past 30 years the pendulum has swung back and modern music has become much more palatable.

George Crumb, a modern composer born in 1929, hit his stride in the late 60s and early 70s and his music is about as avant-garde as you can get. However, there is something about today’s piece, Ancient Voices of Children, which I instantly found alluring, and I still enjoy it today. It dates from 1970, and seems to signal the beginning of a new direction in music.

In Ancient Voices of Children, Crumb set the poetry of Federico Garcia-Lorca to music. Crumb said his goal was to create “musical images that enhance the powerful, yet strangely haunting imagery of Lorca’s poetry.” To this end, Crumb employed prepared instruments–mandolins tuned out of key, pianos with pieces of junk stuck in the strings, a harp with sheets of paper woven into the strings.

Crumb also had the mezzo-soprano sing into the strings of the piano to give her voice haunting overtones. At one point, he has the oboist pull out a harmonica, and at other times the percussionist bangs on Tibetan prayer stones, Japanese temple bells and a tom tom. What always charmed and fascinated me about this piece, however, was the inclusion of a toy piano in one passage of the work. It adds a child-like quality and relief after a gripping and very serious mood. Perhaps this sums up the short poem by Lorca:

my heart of silk
is filled with lights,
with lost bells,
with lilies, and with bees, and I will go very far,
farther than those hills,
farther than the seas,
close to the stars,
to ask Christ the lord,
to give me back
my ancient soul of a child.

Crumb was 41 when he wrote this piece. Perhaps he was expressing the lament of every middle aged person thinking about the lost opportunities one wasted in one’s youth or the child-like wonder at the magic of life and all things new before one falls prey to cynicism as many do. Perhaps that sense of the inherent sadness of the human condition is what gives the work its depth. And for me, it still has enough mystery and beauty to it that gives it a certain staying power.

Sergei Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kije

When I returned to my hometown of Mishawaka, Indiana for Christmas vacation in December of 1976, I was filled with excitement. In January, I would travel to Paris! My plan was to enroll at the Alliance Francaise or the Sorbonne for a semester and whip my spoken French into shape. I had a good reading and writing command of the language but managed to get to my senior year with the spoken skills of a two year-old. I chose Paris on the recommendation of my friend Thom Klem, who had a friend whose sister was studying there and to whom he had written asking for help in getting me acclimated.

My whole family shared in my excitement as well. At my grandmother’s house, where the family of my mother’s siblings met every Sunday, aunts and uncles wished me well, asked me questions about my studies and told stories about the French. I had a cousin who had studied in France. His mother, my favorite aunt, Marty, told us how he had been grossed out when his host family, who lived on a farm, slaughtered a pig and asked him to help. It was ironic because my aunt had grown up on a farm and just one generation earlier this would have been commonplace in the States.

Aunt Marty worked at the local library and her other son did not go to college. For that reason, she doted on me and sent me letters and books under the nom de plume, Marmaduke. For Christmas, she gave me a small travel diary to record my experiences and observations on my trip. That was the only time a member of my family ever encouraged me to write.

I made a lot of visits that Christmas vacation. My brother, Bob, and his then-wife Cindy lived just over the border in Michigan. They invited me up for dinner one night and we took a walk through an open field while huge flakes of snow drifted down on us and hushed the entire countryside. My sister, Joan, and her husband, Tim, were renting an apartment in South Bend and they organized a farewell Sunday brunch for me. I cooked a pasta with garlic and parmesan dish that I had learned the previous semester. I used too much garlic and parmesan, which turned the whole into a gluey mass, which was quite overpowering. They all politely ate it, not wanting to dampen my enthusiasm for things foreign. They still talk about how much garlic I used.

United Airlines had stopped flying its 737s into South Bend sometime in the early 1970s, so my ticket was for Chicago to Paris. My parents volunteered to drive me to the O’Hare airport–90 miles away. A few days before we were to leave, Northern Indiana was hit by a very large blizzard, which buried the area under a three-foot layer of snow. I had never seen so much snow. My father was a volunteer fireman and he trudged the mile to the fire station and returned with a jeep outfitted with a snow blade and he ploughed us out.

The roads remained fairly impassible for several days and I was starting to get cabin fever. So one day I decided to walk about 5 miles into South Bend to visit my friend Jerzy Strong. Strong lived in the bottom of a two story house, the upper floor of which he rented out to a middle-aged woman.

I loved his “bachelor pad.” The front door opened into a small sun-room lined on both sides with chest-high book shelves. Jerzy had studied French but was quite bright and all kinds of language, literature, history and science books lined the shelves. Above the right shelf, windows ran the length of the entryway and Jerzy had hung some gay stained-glass windows there. This breezeway entered into the sitting room on whose right a massive floor to ceiling bay window bowed outward. Jerzy loved exotic plants and he had a number of euphorbia—crown of thorns, pencil plants, and other of these old world succulents (some quite massive)—growing in front of the windows.

Jerzy greeted me at the door and welcomed me in. He had a friend staying with him, a violin major at Indiana University named Doug W****. Doug stood before a music stand when I walked in and put his violin down to greet me. He didn’t look like my idea of a musician—he was a tall and thin, with long wiry hair that he wore parted in the middle. He talked slowly and with a slight whine in his voice and he sounded a bit like a cross between a surfer and a hippie. Jerry later told me that he had done a lot of psychedelic drugs in high school and college. If my memory serves me correctly, his father was a judge in Elkhart, and he had thrown Doug out of his home, which is why he was staying at Jerry’s.

Jerzy suggested we do something appropriate on a day where everything was shut down because of the blizzard. So we walked to his neighborhood bar. Jerzy drank a lot and ordered the three of us his favorite drink—a shot of Jack Daniel’s Bourbon with a beer chaser. I liked this bar—it had a down-home feel to it, not at all stuffy and was full of the lower-middle class trappings I had grown up with: a pool table, a shuffleboard, a moose head, and a juke box filled with tacky country western songs. This was not a pickup bar. It was where you went to tell fishing stories, swap dirty jokes and flirt with a bleach blonde divorcee.

On this day, everyone was nice to us in the bar. Jerzy was well liked and even respected. He’d been to college, but it hadn’t gone to his head. Why he had even dropped out and now was making more money than a college professor putting insulation in a nuclear power plant in Bridgeman, Michigan. It was odd that Jerzy, a guy who had a genius-level IQ, liked places like this. And it took me years to understand the insidious and lure and destructive effects of alcohol. (It would take me about a year before anyone would tell me that binge drinking was not cool.) But Jerzy was so well-read and urbane. Thom Klem used to call him Alcibiades, the chameleon-like ancient Greek who could adapt his personality to the ideas, values and mores of whatever was the most advantageous side to be on at the time.

The next day, Jerzy drove me back to my parents’ house and he wished me well on my trip to Paris. On the weekend, my parents loaded me and my suitcase in the car and we set out for Chicago. Unfortunately, a second snow-storm hit that day, and that slowed us down considerably. The snow came down as thick as fog and we had to go about 20 miles an hour on the interstate for about half of our journey. I fretted in the back seat, worrying that I would miss my flight. But once we crossed the Illinois line and got to the West of Chicago, the sun suddenly appeared and the rest of the journey was almost like a drive on a spring day.

At the airport, we had a few hours to kill. Mom went to have a little walk around in the shops while dad and I sat in a cafeteria drinking coffee and reading the paper. At one point, I looked up and saw he was doing the crossword puzzle. Until that point in time, I had never thought much about his preoccupation with them. I often found them half finished in the pile of papers at the side of our couch. He and were often at odds when it came to politics and my thoughts and ideas. Why should I care about his interests? A few weeks before, I went to a self-serve photo booth at a local mall to get some photos taken for identity cards should I need them in France. I purposely posed to look like a tortured intellectual—hair slicked back, a sullen look on my face. When I showed them to my dad, he got very angry at me and said I should start acting my age—I was nearly 22.

So as we sat in the airport, I was surprised when he asked me if I ever did the crossword puzzles. When I said no, he said I really ought to: they were good for one’s vocabulary and they were stimulating as well. He showed me the one he was working on. “Look,” he said, “sometimes they use the same words over and over again. Like this one: ‘to soak flax.’ That’s ‘ret.’ It keeps your mind sharp.” He gave me the puzzle to work on. I found a number of errors in the answers he put in and after a while found that I had finished it. I was hooked. Since then, I have enjoyed doing at least one crossword a week. For so many years, I denied that my father, being the opinionated guy he was, had ever done anything for me. Now, years later, and with kids of my own, I see how arrogant my youth had made me.

Today’s piece always gets a lot of airplay around Christmas and that is why I chose it to accompany today’s memory of Christmas 1976. I actually first heard it in the Woody Allen movie, Love and Death, which was a parody of all those wonderful Russian philosophical novels by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Gogol. I had read a number of these during my “Russian Intellectual” phase in high school, which was the source of a lot of arguments with my father at the time. It was nice to see Woody Allen lampoon these in a fond way.

The reason the suite gets played at Christmas is one passage called “Troika.” This piece imitates the sounds of the sleigh bells on a sledge thundering across the frozen fields at night. This section gets played ad nauseum, but the entire suite, which is extracted from a film score that Prokofiev did in 1934.

Until I started doing this site, I had not really listened to very much Prokofiev. Oh I could identify several pieces from hearing them on request shows. But I never really gave him serious consideration, maybe because of hearing a bowdlerized version Peter and the Wolf as a child. That somehow made me think of him as a superficial composer. And for some stupid reason, I thought that he was one of those Socialist Realist composers. He had failed to make it big abroad in the 1920s and returned to Russia as something of a celebrity. Eventually, he was accused of excessive Formalism in his music and had to issue a humiliating public apology for his crimes against the state.

Listening to him now, however, I find a renewed interest in his work. He managed to make a successful bridge between the exciting cacophonous and dissonant trends of 20th century music and the rich Russian classical and ethnic traditions from which he arose. For example, he was one of the first composers to embrace the saxophone, which you can hear in the “Troika”.

It’s amazing how much you can miss in life, when you prejudge.

Prokofiev Page

CD or MP3s of Prokofiev: 7 Symphonies; Lieutenant Kijé

Bela Bartok: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

One of the courses I took during the first semester of my senior year in college in 1976 convened in the Lily rare books library of Indiana University. The class was a colloquium on 18th century France, and I decided to do my research paper on a collection of French fairy tales from that era. Some of these are still well known and widely read--Barbebleu, La Belle au Bois Dormant, and Blanc Neige.  I mean Blubeard, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. The original versions bear little resemblance to the sanitized Disney versions and some of them were quite dark and sinister indeed.

My choice to write about fairy tales reflected the affinity I had toward revolutionary movements. Fairy Tales? Revolutionary? Well frankly, yes. Nowadays we think of children’s books as entertaining, instructional, or as inculcating wholesome values. Back in the 17th and 18 century, however, depending on who wrote them, fairy tales could have political subtexts.

The stories tended to divide into two camps–those that tried to reinforce the social, political and economic systems based on control by the monarchy, and those that tried to paint the aristocracy as diseased and worthy of overthrow. In the first type of stories, you could find a commoner as the main character, but usually through some twist of fate it would turn out that he or she was really a princess or prince who had been separated at birth from parents. That explained the sweet nature. Cinderella is an example of the status quo type of story.

Other writers, however, were busy trying to sew seeds of discord into fertile young minds. These stories painted a picture of the evil, corrupt and decadent aristocracy who needed to be overthrown. Common people figured in these works and even were capable of great good.

Voltaire and Marat would have grown up reading Ma Mere d’Oye (Mother Goose), a collection of stories compiled and retold by Charles Perrault. It was from this collection that Bluebeard came, but it has been pulled from Mother Goose for its violent (and perhaps revolutionary) tone since then.

In Perrault’s version, Bluebeard is a hideously ugly duke with a blue beard. He is so repulsive that all the people in his realm hate him, but he is fantastically rich. There is the rumor that he has murdered previous wives, but no one can touch him because he is a member of the aristocracy. He takes a fancy to two sisters who live nearby and tries to woo them. They rebuff his advances until he throws a party and invites them. The younger of the two is quite smitten by his wealth and the nice festive ball he has thrown and she decides to accept his offer of marriage.

Shortly after they are wed, he has to leave on a trip. He gives her the keys to all the rooms in his castle. He tells her she can open all but one and if she does open that one, she will meet with grave consequences. While he is away, she invites her sister and old friends in. She opens all the doors and find rooms filled with jewels, armor, a secret garden and other riches. While her friends ooh and ahs over the treasures, she wanders off and finds the last room. She opens the door and finds it full of the rotting and decaying bodies of Bluebeard’s former wives, whom he has killed. She drops the key and some of the blood splashes on it and stains it. She tries to clean the key, but to no avail. Bluebeard returns, asks for the keys, and when he discovers the blood, he tells her he has to kill her now. She manages to stall him until her brothers arrive in the nick of time and put the hideous serial killer to death.

The interesting thing about this story is that neither the girl nor her brothers are members of the aristocracy. The tale could be interpreted as a call to action against the feudal practice of droit du seigneur. In those times, the feudal lord or king had the pick of young women in his realm and it was expected that he could sleep with and impregnate the wives of all his noblemen. The noblemen got his protection and shared in his wealth and power, which in a way, they gave to him by accepting this practice. Metaphorically, this story shows how this practice is a kind of psychic murder. It sounds barbarian nowadays, but it must have been an effective evolutionary strategy. Apes and some polygamous religious groups still practice it today. (And we flatter ourselves by thinking we’re not animals.)

The story of Bluebeard seems like an odd choice for an opera. And I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “knee-slapper.” Yet I find it an affecting piece, and it contains some incredibly beautiful and haunting melodies. The Hungarian playwright, Balazs, dedicated his play to Bartok, who then turned it into an opera. The orchestral score shows that by 1918 when he wrote it, Bartok had mastered the new tonalities and rhythms pioneered by Debussy and then refined by Stravinsky. Bartok matches these to the seven parts of the one-act play, one for each door that Bluebeard’s wife, Judith, forces him to open.

The play and opera you see focuses on the scene after the marriage and portrays Judith as forcing Bluebeard to give her the keys so she might open the doors. Behind each door, Balazs puts a scene that represents some part of Bluebeard’s life and the influences that shape his persona. In one, we see his great riches; in another an armory. A third leads to a beautiful garden, and a fourth to an expansive domain. The dark side of Bluebeard’s character are represented by rooms containing a torture chamber and a lake of tears. As Judith persuades Bluebeard to give her each key, he asks her if she still loves him and she assures him she does. This despite the fact that the objects in each room are stained with blood. In one, the walls weep and in another they seep blood.

If you know and love “Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra” written nearly 30 years later, you will be delighted to hear the rich textures and use of instruments to paint vivid sound pictures. He manages to capture the mood and symbolism of each room. For the armory, a trumpet blast gives a suitable martial air. In the treasury, the violins and celeste covey the tinkling and warms of gems and gold. When the door opens to reveal a garden, Bartok waxes pastoral and the door leading to a view of his realm conveys his kingly mightiness. In every scene though, there is a dark undercurrent, which Judith annoyingly points out by noticing the blood stains on every thing.

But these pale in comparison to what you hear when she opens the door to the torture chamber, the lake of tears and the final door. At the points Bartok create a rush of unworldly sound that evokes images of pain and intense mental anguish. There are parts of men’s souls, he seems to be saying, that are too horrid to be allowed to see the light of day.

I sometimes wonder what this play symbolizes. It paints a strange and pessimistic view of male-female relationships. The woman appears as prying-insisting on knowing all the deep dark secrets of her mate. She says his secrets will not disgust her and that that is how they can establish true intimacy. When he gives in and shares his deep dark past, she is repulsed. He is not the man she thought he was.

In Balazs’ libretto, Judith guesses the secret of the seventh door. Behind it she will find his murdered wives, proof that he really is a monster unworthy of her love and she has conquered him. When she opens the final door, however, she sees that his three former wives are still alive. What’s more, they are still beautiful and cloaked in golden robes and bedecked with jewels. Bluebeard sings of how he found them at youth, middle age, and finally as an old man. Each one controls a part of his day, and Judith now will be mistress of the night. He puts a heavy mantle on her and she joins the other wives in the seventh room.

As I said, this opera is probably not the thing you would take a blind date to. Nor even your mother. In fact, I’ve never met anyone else who’s ever heard of it or raved about it. It is a dark piece. But I find it so far ahead of its time.

Think about the times period when it was written. Europe and the Austro-Hungarian Empire is being broken apart by World War I and ethnic conflicts which erupted again in the 1990s. Philosophical religious and psychological beliefs are being transformed and Freud shines a spotlight in on the dark parts of the human mind. Freud pretty much said man is an animal with base desires that must be repressed, and in so doing they give us neuroses. Balazs view is more complex, and even Jungian in nature. That is, we all have these dark sides to our persona, and they need to be integrated and accepted before true healing can take place.

For me, “Bluebeard’s Castle” also represents one of the last listenable pieces of vocal music in the academic tradition before atonality and serialism lay waste to it for the next 50 or so years. After this comes the anti-song works of Schoenberg (Pierrot Lunaire). People have become so disaffected with this stuff and perhaps that explains why so many have gone back to square one and started listening to Gregorian chants again. The pendulum has swung the other way, but now we’re seeing modern composers, like John Tavener, trying to create a fusion of the old and new. People get so upset when one trend dies an a new one takes its place. But these things go in cycles and the much-maligned masses should sometimes be commended for “knowing what they like.”

Download MP3s of Bartok: Bluebeard’s Castle from Amazon

Tirukkokarnam Subbarama Bhagavatar: Ni ri ni ri ga ma

In my last post, I wrote about a piece of Javanese classical music performed on the Gamelan. I fell in love with that piece back in my senior year of college in 1976 when my friend Thom Klem played it for me. It came from an anthology of world music called “Music from Distant Corners of the World” on the Nonesuch label. This album had 33 track of music from just about every continent.

Each piece on that album had a special quality to it, whether it came from the Peruvian Andes or the mountains of Bulgaria. Listening to any one song on that album was like hooking up to the collective conscious of an entire culture. Before the Internet, music was one way of surfing the web of human accomplishments.

The producers of this double album had devoted one whole side to Indian classical music. Back in 1967 when the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band,” I was electrified by one song, “Within You. Without You.” It featured a sitar solo played by George Harrison who had studied with Ravi Shankar. After that, Shankar became somewhat of a pop star in the late 1960s. He got a psychedelic light show and played the college campus circuit, composed a few sound tracks and even recorded an “East Meets West” album with Yehudi Menuhin.

I loved the sound of Indian classical music–the twang and drone of the zither-like sitar, the intricate drum patterns, the mournful violin, and the human voice which often imitated them all. This music so moved me that in 7th grade, I made a number of number of signs which read “I like Ravi.” On these, I substituted a small drawing of a sitar for the letter “I”.  My classmates in my provincial Midwestern middle school would come up to me and say, “Who’s Rav?”

So several years later, when I heard hearing the recording of Ni ri ni ri ga ma, I was immediately drawn to it. What’s more, realizing my college friends also appreciated it made me feel like I had finally come home.

Indiana University, where I was a senior at this time, had a very fine film studies department. I believe this semester they had a course on Indian cinema, which featured the works of the great Bengali film maker, Satyajit Ray. I went along once to a screening of Pather Panchali which is the story about a poor boy growing up a family in rural India. The father is a head-in-the-clouds scholar who refuses to come down to earth long enough to do anything about the miserable state to which his family has sunk. His wife nearly goes mad at her husband’s attitude and is left disconsolate when she realizes she has to send her son, Apu, off to live with relatives in Calcutta. The relatives, it turns out, live in a bare stucco house on the banks of the Ganges without a stick of furniture. They are as poor as Apu’s parents and are unhappy with the boy’s arrival.

I seem to remember that the film was autobiographical for Ray, who grew up to be a real renaissance man. He acted, wrote plays and novels, composed music, penned verses of poetry and became a film maker and political gadfly. His films weren’t box office successes in India, but he developed world recognition as one of the great 20th century art film makers-right up there with Fellini. As everyone knows, India churns out more films than any country on the face of the earth. Most of these are musical action/adventure/comedy/romantic farces. This must fulfill some escapist fantasy need of the general population.

Satyajit Ray either wrote or collaborated on the music for Pather Panchali with Ravi Shankar, who recorded the sound track.

That semester, Thom and I developed an interest in Indian cuisine. We started buying and experimenting with all the exotic spices. Spices with names like fenugreek, asafetida, turmeric, fennel and star anise. Strong flavors like ginger, clove, mace and nutmeg. For us, the subtle blending of these flavors into a meal was like composing an olfactory and gustatory symphony.

Nowadays, if you visit an Indian grocery store, you’re bound to find they rent videos and sell cassette tapes. It usually is the film score and songs from movie posters on the wall.  This is really too bad because the voice in Indian classical music is as important as any of the instruments. This is demonstrated in the song, Ni ri ni ri ga ma. The vocalist sings intricate duets and counterpoint with almost every instrument-the sitar, the tabla, violin-often imitating the instrument perfectly. I’m not sure if the instruments are imitating the voice or vice versa-that would be an interesting question for a historian of Indian music. The effect is quite striking, however, and even has a meditative effect. For that reason, the Nonesuch label originally put this piece on an album called “Dhyanam/Mediation.” Unfortuantely, it’s out of print.

Once again, I marvel at the power of music to connect people and allow us to get inside the head and minds of those from other cultures.  It’s a nice way to connect.

Prince Mangkunegara IV of Surakarta: Puspawarna (Kinds of Flowers)

And as I have said before, it was always interesting hanging around with the artsy-campy crowd I discovered at Indiana University in Bloomington in the 1970s (see story below today’s piece.) Everything was allowed, and at least one member of the group knew about whatever I had questions about—opera, art, music, literature, history or languages. At a party once, someone took out a copy of The Nonesuch Explorer, which was an anthology of folk and classical music from nearly every continent. This album soon became my favorite, at it is the source of today’s piece.

It may seem odd to write about the court music of Java in a page devoted to classical music. But I never intended to limit this page to just Western classical music. In case of the gamelan, which is a combination musical instrument/orchestra, its music is as studied and formalized as that of our own. What’s more, this type of music had a profound effect on Claude Debussy who found in it the impetus to free him from the academically strict music of his day. Indeed, he experimented with the pentatonic scale, alternate rhythms, and new chordal clusters and his experimentation changed the face of Western music.

Today’s piece still grabs me after all these years. As soon as the track starts, its as if my mind shifts into a completely different reality. Time and is distorted—speeding up and slowing down willy-nilly. Space seems to warp. I might as well be dreaming.

Buy Recording from Nonesuch

Wikipedia Entry on this Piece

Biography of Composer

A Spitball Keeps me From Dancing (written in 1999)

In the Fall of 1976, my girl friend traveled to England. The girl I considered my soul mate, Kristi, had gone to Lima, Peru to work on her Spanish. I lived in a hovel in the bowels of an apartment building. My social life revolved mostly around the artsy-campy group that used to hang out around the French House.

Kristi wrote wonderful letters of her time in Lima. She had a jocular yet literary style and she painted wonderful word pictures about Peruvian culture, the country’s politics and a trek she made to the mysterious city of Machu Picchu. I would read her letters and imagine myself standing beside her on some promontory in the Andes, munching perhaps on an edible tuber.

The letters that came from my girl friend in England were singularly dispiriting. Once she wrote about an Indian meal she had eaten in London. She expressed surprise and a sense of injury when each dish she tried failed to taste the way she expected it. Later in the night, she threw it all up in her squalid little hotel room. The tone of the letters I now realize expressed the feelings of someone to whom fate had dealt some bad cards. At the time, however, I just scorned what I considered her weakness and frailty.

At such times I would bemoan my fate and wonder how I let Kristi slip through my fingers. Was there any chance that I could win her back? This turned out to be the start of a pattern that plagued me during a number of relationships. It’s the old “the grass is always greener” syndrome, and it has caused me to hurt a number of people, for which I am truly sorry.

I would like to say that I did the noble thing and remained faithful to my girl friend while she was in England. In truth, I was faithful in deed but not thought. I resembled Jimmy Carter in that aspect who during his campaign that fall gave an interview with Playboy Magazine in which he said “I have committed adultery in my heart many times.”

What made me faithful in deed, however, was not a deep moral or ethical conviction. No, I was just too shy to try to pick up girls. While writing this, I discovered why. Part of it has to do with having had a poor body image—I was a little plump as a child and a few adults remarked on it and though I lost my baby fat, the impression has lasted almost all of my life. But the prime reason I failed in the bar scene was the dancing. I wasn’t crazy about disco music which was all the rage back in the late 1970s, but that wasn’t the real reason. I had a mortal dread of making a fool of myself and having people stare at me.

It had to do with something that happened in my sixth grade band class. My parents had forced me to play the clarinet, at which I was hopeless. I always tried to get out of playing by pretending I was sick or had left my instrument at home. One day, we were supposed to take dance lessons in this class. We were all kind of excited about it—nervous adolescents with burgeoning sexual tension. I fidgeted.

Now my mother had recently bought me a brief case. I had lobbied for one because James Bond had one and he filled it full of cool devices any spy would need—guns, poison gas, bombs, Geiger counters, etc. What I liked about mine were the neat little spring-loaded clasps on either side of the handle. They were perfect little catapults for launching spitballs.

To break the tension and draw attention to myself (I was after all the class clown), I chewed up a piece of paper, wadded it into a sphere, set it on one of my catapults, called to one of my friends and inconspicuously nudged the button.

“Kurt!” yelled the music teacher, Mrs. Muldoon. “Out into the hall!”

I was crushed. I liked Mrs. Muldoon. She liked me. I liked her even though she had a hideous U-shaped scar on her neck from a thyroid operation. “No. I’m sorry,” I protested.

“Out!”

So out I went. She was so preoccupied coordinating and directing the dancing that she forgot all about me and I spent the entire hour out in the hall. I would look in the window from time to time and saw my friends—Boys!—touching girls. The left hand of my friend, Randy, rested on the hip of a girl! The other held the girl’s right hand aloft as they waltzed around the room. To make matters worse, the principal came walking up and asked why I was in the hall and I had to lower my head and confess my crime.

And so, I did what anyone would do to hide their shame and disappointment: I said “sour grapes.” Thus I did not learn to dance until graduate school and never mastered the art of the pick-up. Considering the number of people my age who ended up with herpes, however, I guess I really don’t mind.

Now if the Mrs. Muldoon had played Gamelan music in our class, maybe I would have learned to dance earlier.

Modest Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain

We get our values from many sources–friends, family, religion, culture, and lessons learned. Today’s piece relates to a lesson learned in my college year. (See the story below today’s piece.)

When I was a child, one of the network television stations would broadcast The Wizard of Oz once a year. This was before VCRs, DVD, Youtube and Tivo. My whole family would always watch it together, almost like a religious event, and it always had the same effect on me. The Munchkins delighted me. The witch always scared me to death. The scarecrow was my best friend. All the scenes in the Emerald City filled me with awe—especially the horse of a different color. And when the witch’s henchmen were chasing Dorothy and her friends along the parapets of the evil castle, the music contributed to the impending doom and heightened my fear.

The music played during that final chase scene, I later found out, was Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. Mussorgsky was one of a group of five Russian composers who flourished at the end of the 19th century. This group included Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Mussorgsky was considered to be the most gifted of the five, but unfortunately he drank himself to death, and he shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 42. He left a number of works, which his friends and later composers finished for him. Rimsky-Korsakov, for example, orchestrated Night on Bald Mountain producing the version that was used in Fantasia and The Wizard of Oz.

Mussorgsky wrote the piece for St. John’s Eve, which falls near the summer solstice and is celebrated in Russia as the time when witches and other evil spirits gather on a local mountain to celebrate. I wonder if this is where our Halloween comes from.

Mussorgsky’s piece depicts the frenetic dancing of witches, the shrieks and howls of animals, spirits and the wind, and the light of dawn, which scatters the spirits. He uses bombastic brass, rapid decrescendos played on violins, and high pitched blasts of woodwinds to capture the mood of this pagan ritual perfectly. It’s not the kind of music you would put on at a dinner party, of course, but it is perfect when you want to just sit back and be awed by the power of an orchestra to evoke vivid visual scenes. And it worked perfectly in The Wizard of Oz.

Mussorgsky Biography

Purchase Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on Bald Mountain

The Wizard of Faux Pas

Robert Fulghum wrote a best-seller entitled All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. That book touched a nerve in me. You see, my rural school system didn’t offer kindergarten. Consequently I have spent a good deal of my energy during my adult life trying to unlearn the darker lessons of my childhood and develop a more humane, tolerant and compassionate set of ethics.

It would be too easy to point the finger of blame at certain individuals, my parents, or the overwhelmingly white, conservative and working-class population of my native northern Indiana. Of course, you couldn’t really call it a hotbed of liberal tolerance, either. I grew up hearing and assimilating the prejudices and biases behind the jokes told about Jews, blacks, homosexuals, and people with disabilities.

It would be nice to say that once the civil rights movement took hold and I reached a cognizant age, I quickly shed all of my prejudices, biases and stereotypical beliefs. Unfortunately, their roots ran deep into thoughts and ideas which sometimes only surfaced in the most inappropriate times. Thus, I have had to lose each flawed and dangerous belief by the same painful process—one at a time and by making a horrible gaffe. Then some member of the offended group would then give me a lecture. If I was lucky, they would remain my friend. If not, they would disappear for ever.

The Fall of 1976 offered another one of what my late friend David Hendrickson used to call “A f****** growth opportunity.” During that, the first semester of my senior year of college, my girlfriend Lacy was in England. Now, my Myers-Briggs rating pegs me fairly solidly as an extravert, and I was spending a fair amount of time with the old artsy-campy crowd who had moved out of the French House where I’d previously lived before moving into an apartment. But I still longed for some female companionship. I wasn’t unfaithful to my girlfriend, but I did start hanging out a bit with a girl named Beth, who was in one of my French classes and who worked at the library where my friend Thom worked.

Beth had a fairly small stature, and being just five foot six inches tall myself I felt kind of tall around her. I believe she studied something like comparative literature or English, and she had a very precise, almost British, way of talking. Beth also had a wry, sometimes even wicked, sense of humor, and I often found myself frequently chatting with her on my visits to see Thom at the library.

One day, Thom suggested we cook dinner at his house and we invited Beth along. On the way there that evening, I stopped off to buy a big jug of cheap wine. The three of us had a nice, civilized meal and then we retired to Thom’s room where we sat around drinking and talking. One of the lessons I learned growing up was that the goal of drinking was to get drunk, and so I knocked back a good number of glasses of the rot gut.

The drunker I got, the more my tongue loosened and I started telling funny stories. I related a news item I had read in the newspaper that day. Someone had just written a book about the making of the movie,The Wizard of Oz. The article detailed some of the problems the filmmakers had with the Munchkins. They had put out a casting call for “midgets” and “dwarves” to play the part of the Munchkins. They recruited heavily in circuses, for sadly, that’s the milieu where most people with that disability ended up—in carnival and circus freak shows.

In the movie, the Munchkins are portrayed as sweet and innocent and child like. In reality some of the actors that played them were criminals, alcoholics, and even prostitutes. The article had a tongue in cheek tone to it and related how some of the male actors tried to come on to Judy Garland, pinch her behind, or grope her.

I summarized the story with great glee. When I finished, there was dead silence. Then Beth proceeded to give me a lesson on tolerance. Dwarves and midgets aren’t freaks, she told me. They have feelings and the right to be treated like human beings. The actors who played the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz should have my sympathy, not my derision.

I felt like such a cad. I’d grown up thinking it was OK to make jokes about people with disabilities. Perhaps Beth”s small stature indicated dwarfism in her family. Or perhaps she had been ridiculed for her small size all her life. The amazing thing was that as a child and adolescent, I had been made fun of for being small as well. Does all discrimination and prejudice start out that way–as a reaction to some earlier slight?

By the end of the night at Thom’s, I had drunk myself into near oblivion. When I was helping Thom escort Beth to the street, I fell off the steps leading up to his porch and into the bushes that enclosed his small front yard. Thom and Beth rescued me, put me to bed, and I awoke the next morning with the worst hangover of my life. After that, Beth treated me perfunctorily and coolly when I met her at the library. She had obviously written me off as a dolt, but she taught me a valuable lesson about tolerance and prejudice that day. I only wish someone had given me a similar lesson about alcohol consumption.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto Number 6 in B-flat major

I have written before I think of the wonderful people who have appeared at certain times in my life to show me little wondrous corners of life and point me in the right direction. Today, I write about two more, college professors, as it turns out, one of whom helped me hear a familiar piece of music as if for the first time.

Back in high school, I had bought a collection of all six Brandenburg concerti conducted by Pablo Casals, but I had not paid that much attention to the 6th until a professor of genetics used it to illustrate a point for us. (Please see my article after the description of the 6th below.)

One of the remarkable things about this concerto is that Bach omitted the violins entirely. Instead Bach gives melody to the violas and cellos, which creates a rich, mature and stately feeling. To me it brings to mind a carriage trundling along the English country side in the lengthening shadows of a long summer sunset. For the second movement, Bach removes all accompanying instruments and the cellos and violas play a moving, poignant duet that climbs and climbs before resolving and then lovingly recedes leaving an afterglow of tenderness. The final movement is the a syncopated gigue which trips along, and gives me the happy feeling of a peal of joyous church bells at Christmas.

Bach Biography

Purchase Bach – Brandenburg Concertos / Britten, ECO

 

1976: A Time of Seeing Things Anew

In November of 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president. Not only had I voted in my first presidential election, but my candidate had one. That creep Nixon and his dolt of a vice president were gone. What more could I want?

I would like to say that the experience turned me into a political activist. That I envisioned myself one day becoming president. After all, if a peanut farmer from Georgia with a populist message could get elected, then I could, too. He started out on the school board, for God’s sake. This could have been a defining moment for me-a turning point in my career. I could have set my course for the White House. But as was the case at many pivotal points in my life, when I stepped up to the plate, I could not see beyond the end of my bat. In fact, most of the time, I didn’t even see myself as a player in the game.

Like many people who grew up at the tail end of the 1960s, I really had no clue of what I wanted to do with my life except to avoid selling out. At the same time I was a kind of dilettante and loved studying new things. Every semester I seemed to take a new language–Latin, Spanish, German and Italian. For me studying a language was kind of like doing a crossword puzzle, working out how the pieces fit together and what the message was. I could sit and translate for hours, but I was too timid to speak.

This brings me to an odd contradiction in my life–I have always done and studied just about anything I wanted, but I never felt completely in control of my destiny. How does a person get that way? Over the years I have met scores of goal-directed people who became lawyers, doctors, artists, and professors. I just couldn’t find my niche and got bored once I hit a certain level of understanding.

Yet I had dreams. I wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t think I could get accepted to medical school so I didn’t even try. I wanted to be an artist, but would not take art classes, thinking that I had to have a natural talent for it like my high school friends Kerry and Jayne. I wanted to be a musician, but knew that I was too old to become famous at it and so abandoned it after taking one semester of piano. I wanted to be a writer, and chose as my model James Joyce, whom I knew I could never imitate–I never studied Greek!

This brings me to the other paradox of my life. I wanted instant success in the things that I wanted to do, but I ignored and failed to build on the natural abilities I had. How did I manage never to get good career advice? I’ve since come to learn that anything you want to do well takes time and over the years I have been working on writing and have been satisfied with the little successes I have had with it. My greatest challenge is to keep myself from thinking I’m too old and have missed the boat.

But way back in college, I usually only set short term goals for myself. In the fall of 1976, pretty much all I wanted to do was get through the semester and leave for Paris in January. My goal was to study at the Sorbonne or the Alliance Francaise and get my spoken French up to speed. I thought I should be able to transfer my experience into enough college credits to graduate in the summer.

Though a French major, that fall I only took two language classes. The first was a contemporary literature class in which we had to read the first volume of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdus, Andre Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican and Jean Paul Sartre’s La Nausee. The class was taught by an stout middle-aged French woman who dyed her hair and wore thick mascara and bright red lipstick. Her enthusiasm for the works knew no bounds.

The second French class was one of the most wonderful classes I have ever taken. It was an honors colloquium devoted to 18th century France, known as the Age of Enlightenment. What made this course so wonderful was that we met in the Lily rare book library on campus. The Lily foundations, founded by the pharmaceutical family, had built this wonderful, Art Deco mausoleum and filled it with rare books that the family had collected. They had a Gutenberg Bible, of course, Diderot’s Encyclopedie, and countless other books. We studied the social, political, artistic and philosophical movements of the time period leading up to the revolution and then read original authors works from the first edition books published during their life time. I loved picking up the old, leather tomes and running my hand over the vellum. We had to write a term paper for the class and I chose to write about a 35-volume collection of fairy tales that spanned that century called Le Cabinet des Fees. It contained the original versions of “Bluebeard,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White.” I discussed how the genre evolved over the century and reflected the growing anti-royalist sentiment of the day. Our professor was an inspired guy named Michael Berkvam who lectured passionately about the works and inspired us with the love that he had for the writers and that time period. He never talked down to us and treated us like equals. He once invited the class to his house for a party where we stayed late discussing philosophy and getting drunk. I was amused to find a small bookshelf in his bathroom on which he kept a copy of the Bible. When I remarked on it, he said “What better place?” He always got the highest student evaluations and the French and Italian department rewarded him the next year by denying him tenure.

That fall I also took a wonderful genetics class geared for the humanity students. The professor was a genial man with horrible allergies whose desire was to convince us liberal arts majors that we weren’t scientific dolts. He tried to make the study of genetics fun, and he did a great job. One day, he showed a film about the replication of DNA, which he said occurs with a mathematical precision and at a rhythm that he realized was mirrored by the tempo of the third movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 6.

Now this wasn’t the first time I had heard the work. I had bought a collection of all six concerti conducted by Pablo Casals, but it was the first time that I really paid attention to the 6th.

I have written before I think of the wonderful people who have appeared at certain times in my life to show me little wondrous corners of life and point me in the right direction. These two college professors from such seemingly different backgrounds as science and French literature influenced me greatly and I only hope that we adults today remember the important role we can play in modeling behavior for youth that focuses on ennobling rather than preaching

Bela Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz 106

Over the years, several pieces of music have caught my attention on first hearing. It’s almost as if they resonate with some pre-wired part of my being. Sarasate’s Zigeunerwisen, for example, makes me go all weak-kneed and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodie Number 14, always seem to make my Hungarian blood boil.

Bartok has that effect on me. Today’s piece, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta used to get a lot of air play on the phone-in request shows. It is considered by musicologists almost more important a work than his Concerto for Orchestra, which is his most popular piece.

The part that always sent chills down my spine, was the one in which Bartok tried to capture the feeling of night. He was fascinated by trying to capture the restless quiet of that time of day and in this piece he has the violinists slide their fingers up and down the string to give an eerie tone and which is imitated all the time in horror movies. Another movement is a musical palindrome: at midpoint, Bartok reversed the notes and it this device gives the amazing sense of time going backwards or water receding. I can’t think of a more atmospheric piece of music or a more fun one, to boot.

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