Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download MP# or Buy CD of Stravinsky Conducting Firebird

Paul Hindemith: Symphony Mathis der Maler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Maurice Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin

Many people have one of those years in which they seem to be firing on all eight cylinders. Being pretty much of an optimist and a “glass-half full” kind of guy, I’ve actually had a number of years like that. I worked my way through college and paid for a semester of study in France; I lived in Algeria and Italy; and I have been blessed with two wonderful daughters. All of these occurred in good years. One of the first years that really stood out, however, was 1975, the year I moved into the dorm at Indiana University called the French House.

Over the past month or so, I have written about the wonderful array of characters who lived or hung out there—singers, musicians, language, literature, and history majors. Some of these people became good friends; some kept aloof; others were friendly enough to me but avoided the other people in the clique to which I belonged—the campy cynics. One person I regret not become better friends with was a guy named Kevin, who was majoring in piano.

Like many musicians, Kevin excelled in languages and that brought him to the dorm. He took his piano and other studies seriously but his affable personality contrasted with another musicians in the house, the sneering British violinist named Tony. Kevin might have been gay—he dressed impeccably, always had well-coifed hair, and spoke with a lisp. The members of my clique made a few overtures toward him at the beginning of the semester. They were a bit too catty for him, however, and he stayed away from them. This turned my clique against him, and I seem to remember some nasty scenes between them.

I had a love for piano music, and Kevin often took the time to chat with me about favorite composers. He loved Debussy and Ravel and I believe it was he who introduced me to today’s piece, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. At his senior recital, I believe he played it along with Liszt’s Les Preludes.

I have an overly developed sense of smell and have always been interested in perfumes and colognes. Growing up in a middle class household, the fragrances you get exposed to are strong ones like “Old Spice,” “Brut” and Avon’s “Wild Country.” These are to serious fragrances as country music is to classical music. On one visit with Kevin, he told me about his favorite cologne, Grey Flannel by Geoffrey Beene. That was the first really intricate and complex smell I’d ever encountered. And that was one of the great things about the French House, you could meet people who enthused about things like art, music, foods and smells and no one thought it was weird—no one had yet been beaten down by the drudgery of a nine to five workday and the stereotypical roles imposed by society.

Le Tombeau de Couperin seems to be a good choice for someone who liked Ravel so much, since that composer is well known for his intricate and complex melodies and orchestration. Le Tombeau de Couperin is a work for solo piano in six movement, which has also been transcribed for orchestra and other instruments like guitar. I believe Ravel wrote the piece as an homage to the French composer, Couperin who lived from 1688 to 1733. The first three movements have a kind of somber and sinister feel to them, kind of like you get walking around one of those over-the-top French cemeteries like Pere Lachaise. The third movement “Forlane” has a kind of wry feeling to it, however, almost like a cat slinking among those huge, ornate, wedding cake mausoleums. The perkiest movement however, is the fourth, entitled “Rigaudon”, named after an ancient dance from Provence. It has a playfulness to it that blows away all the cobwebs, despite its stateliness and intricacies.

Kevin did a great job at his recital and then moved to another dorm the next semester.  I never saw him again.  In the intervening years, I think Grey Flannel has come to be thought of as hackneyed a fragrance as Brut or Old Spice.  However, every time I see it, I have a Proustian moment and I think about Kevin and other things past.

There’s an orchestral version of Le Tombeau, which is really nice as well:


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Igor Stravinsky: Petrushka

Today I answer the question my daughter posed in 1999  and which sowed the seed for this web site. We were on the way to her weekly violin lesson, and as always I had tuned the car radio to the local classical music station. Some piece came on and I started whistling along. Claire, age twelve, said to me: “Daddy. What is your favorite piece of music?” Without hesitation I can now say that the one piece to which I consistently turn—for solace, joy, intellectual stimulation, or just plain fun—is Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Most musicologists will say that Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring has had more influence on the direction of 20th Century music than any other piece written. However, I find Petrushka much more satisfying because it stands perfectly balanced between the classical tradition out of which Stravinsky came and the new one—containing complex rhythms and harmonies—which he helped create. To me, Stravinsky’s musical work reminds me of many of the visual artists, like Monet and Cezanne, who started out classically trained, moved through impressionism and then virtually invented abstract art—Monet in color and Cezanne in form.

Stravinsky had begun Petrushka as a concert piece for piano and orchestra. He took it to the impresario of the Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev, who had produced the Firebird. Diaghilev told him to turn in into a ballet because of the success of the earlier work. The ballet revolves around a menage a trois between three puppets―Petrushka, a ballerina and a Moor. Stravinsky had been inspired by the image of a puppet, “suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet.”

Here’s a 1928 recording with Stravinsky conducting himself:

Petrushka is divided into five sections, one for each scene. The first and the last scene are set during the Russian Mardi Gras, during the Shrove Tide Fair. Stravinsky captures perfectly the excitement a child feels at the sights and sounds of a fair. He starts out with a bright bubbly introduction: flutes, strings and harp bounce along at a rapid pace like butterflies flashing in the sun. All of a sudden, the string basses rush in and play a syncopated rhythm that takes control. The full orchestra joins in and plays in this vein, from time to time punctuated with a blast from a trumpet or flute. Then the piece changes rhythm again as the entire orchestra joins in building to a climax before it abruptly stops. Then Stravinsky starts it all over again but on the second pass he brings everything rushing to a halt on the shoulders of the tympanis playing like tom-toms.

According to Ted Libbey in his book, The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection during this first section, “two bars of superimposed 3/4 and 7/8 are followed by two bars of 2/4 and 5/8 and one of 3/4 and 8/8.” These complex rhythms set up such a feeling of energy and ebullience that I never tire of hearing it.

Unlike The Rites of Spring where one passage flows into the next, each scene, save one, is divided into discrete subsections with rhythms and feelings of their own. The third movement, for example, called “The Charlatan’s Booth,” starts out with an ominous bassoon and drum that leads us through the dark folds of a tent and into the inner sanctum. There the flute plays a wistful melody that has a hint of magic to it. Shimmering violins add to the effect. Stravinsky then launches into an amazing Russian Dance, which he based on a folk song that he had his mentor, Rimsky-Korsakov, sent him while he was composing the piece. The staccato rhythm of this dance backed by the bright clear orchestration makes this one of the most joyous pieces I know of.

Stravinsky did a large part of his composing at the piano. Odd then that he did not write a piano concerto. Instead he treated the instrument as an integral part of the orchestra. This shows in the scene called “Petrushka’s Room.” Here Stravinsky uses the piano sometimes as a percussion instrument and at others to create a haunting feeling that seems to evoke the strings of a puppet. This piece is where Petrushka has his little fight with the orchestra, especially the mocking trumpets. This I think is the pivotal movement of the whole piece in which Stravinsky sets up a “mano a mano” between the old tradition of tonality with the new that he invents in this piece. He creates haunting and jarring chords by having trumpets and other instruments plays at intervals of fifths and sevenths. He later said this is some of the writing of which he was the proudest.

Here is a piano version of three scenes from Petrushka that I find astounding:

For me this piece holds so many associations for me with the bucolic atmosphere of Indiana University where I went to college. Every day to get to Ballentine hall, where most of my language and literature courses took place, I would walk past the school of music. The road ran past the school’s huge circular annex, which was given over to sound proof practice rooms. Starting in spring when it became warm enough, the students practicing inside would throw open the windows and I would be serenaded every day. One piece that I often heard came from the third scene of Petrushka, which takes place in the Moor’s room. The piece is called “Dance of the Ballerina.”

Petrushka loves the ballerina, but given that she’s in the Moor’s room, we know Petrushka is the odd man out. The ballerina’s dance is oddly masculine and martial—it consists of 45 seconds of a trumpet solo. And it was this trumpet solo that I remember hearing on many occasions on my walks past the school of music. It must be a set audition piece for all trumpet players.

To mark the beginning of the last scene, the return to the Shrove Tide Fair, Stravinsky uses the roll of the tympanis once again. There follow a series of dances for various characters. After a wonderful lush soaring introduction, he moves into the “Dance of the Nursemaids,” which I think is one of my all-time favorite melodies by Stravinsky. I think of a wonderful Russian snow scape at night with a troika slushing along. But by the end, Stravinsky has changed the mood once again to a sparkling sunny day. Suddenly Stravinsky changes the rhythm to a lumbering one accompanied by a mocking clarinet, which captures the ridiculous sight of a peasant and a bear dancing together. The “Dance of the Gypsy Girls” is fiery and exotic. It is followed by the “Dance of Coachmen and Grooms” who skip along in a kind of stately but comic way. The second to last piece is called “The Masqueraders” and contains a lot of brass that convey a sense of confusion, urgency and anxiety. Stravinsky brings back the opening theme, but gives it a sort of American Indian feeling to it. Before long, we realize something is amiss. The Moor kills Petrushka. In the last scene Stravinsky conveys the feeling of night with quiet, but shimmering violins and a wary clarinet. Petrushka dies, yet he raises from the dead and dances above the Shrove Tide Fair shaking his angry fist at the lovers and having the last laugh, which a pair of trumpets play in different keys.

Here’s the finale:

For me, the mix of the old and the new, the innovation, the depth of emotion, and the all-encompassing nature of this work clearly shows Stravinski’s genius and listening to it once again makes me certain that it belongs at the top of my list of all time favorites.


MP3: Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, The Firebird & Apollo

Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Beginning in high school, my best friend became a guy named Gary Endicott, of whom I’ve already written. His parents had a Reader’s Digest collection of records with a title like: “The World’s Greatest Classical Music.” They had loaned me a few of the records from it, pieces like Handel’s Water Music. The collection also contained a copy of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which I gave a spin to one day. I had heard of Stravinsky and thought that it might be interesting to listen to some “modern” music. What amazes me now is my initial reaction. When I turned it on and the music started, I distinctly remember turning to Gary and saying something like: “God, what is that noise?”

How funny then that a couple of years later, while living at the French House (where I lived during my sophomore year at Indiana University), Stravinsky’s music caught my attention and has held it ever since. In fact, were one to ask me the name of my favorite composer, the name Stravinsky would be the first off my lips. This makes me wonder whether one’s brain must go through some developmental stages that mirror the development of western music, so that you can only listen to certain pieces when you are receptive. Kind of like the “ontongeny recapitulates phylogeny argument” but with swing.

Ironically, I had heard part of The Rite of Spring the semester before, in the Fall of 1974, at a viewing of the Walt Disney film, Fantasia. I think that was probably the most ill-conceived part of the entire film. Disney had shortened the work and used it to illustrate the creation of the world and the hostile conditions on the earth during the time of the dinosaurs. It’s too bad they used it for this section. It just didn’t work and seeing those stupid images just kept me from approaching the work with an unbiased mind.

I believe I might be forgiven my philistinism back in high school. As almost everyone knows, the opening of the Rite of Spring caused one of the greatest scandal in the world of serious music. In Paris, no less, (culture capital of the world) a hostile crowd booed the work at its premier in 1913. Various writers and Stravinsky himself gave different explanations for the fiasco. Though Stravinsky claimed that he was just going the next step in the development of traditional western music, his emphasis on rhythm (and vary complex and interwoven ones at that) broke with the current fashion of Ravel and Debussy’s impressionism in which emotions were expressed via exotic orchestration. Stravinsky also pushed the envelope in terms of orchestration and instrumentation which caused many people to label the music as dissonant.

Setting a ballet to the music also presented problems. The impresario Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to write it for his Ballet Russe troupe after the successes of The Firebird and Petrushhka. The company’s lead dancer, Nijinsky, had his dancers count out the complex rhythms in Russian, which proved a mistake since numbers above ten in that language are polysyllabic. So the dancers made a hash of the production. Another writer pointed to the fact that the Russian émigrés living in Paris at this time period were not particularly welcome. They were seen, as the Algerians and Africans are today in the “city of light” as taking away jobs from the natives. A number of anti-Russian agitators reportedly attended the premier and made catcalls. Whatever the causes, a fistfight broke out in the auditorium, which eventually spilled out into the neighborhood. When I was at Indiana University, the only thing that ever provoked a riot was when the basketball team won the national championship.

Though 101 years have passed since it’s premier, the music still seems fresh and daring. The idea for The Rite of Spring came to Stravinsky in a dream. He supposedly envisioned a young sacrificial virgin dancing herself to death in a pagan fertility ritual. The work is divided into two parts: “The Adoration of the Earth” and “The Sacrifice.” Each of these is broken down into a number of smaller named piece, but they flow into one another without pause. The first movement starts out with a mournful tune played in the upper register of the bassoon. And this points out one of the most interesting parts of Stravinsky’s work: the way in which he uses traditional instruments in non-traditional ways. In the first movement of the “Sacrifice” section, for example, he has a pair of trumpets play at different intervals to create a haunting mood. Stravinsky also gave lesser known instruments major roles like the b-flat clarinet.

A couple of years ago, my friend John Kim and I went to a performance of The Rite of Spring at the Kennedy Center. Leonard Slatkin conducted and we managed to get seats at the front of the nosebleed loggia looking down on the orchestra. These turned out to be ideal seats. Normally all you get to see are the musicians who lie along the first plane parallel to the conductor. Our perch afforded us a view of every member of the orchestra and I could actually see how Stravinsky moved the dominant melody around the orchestra and had certain groups play off one another. This added so much to my appreciation of the piece.

That was a nice surprise–after about 23 years of loving this piece, I found something in it that held a surprise for me. Just like old friends.

Stravinsky Biography

Download MP3 or buy CD of Stravinsky: Petroushka (Original 1911 Version) & The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) from Amazon

J.S. Bach Chaconne from 2nd Violin Partita BWV 1004

Someday soon, I expect to see the following ad for a concert at the Kennedy Center: “Internationally renowned violinist, Komiko Kim, joins the National Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D. This marks Kim’s American debut and her first performance since being born last month.

Nowadays, promoters and agents seem obsessed with finding younger and younger prodigies. I suspect the blame lies with tiger moms and helicopter parents. Most of us want our kids to be outshine others and so enroll them in music and sports programs almost as soon as they learn to walk. Every parent dreams of siring a Mozart. Prodigies who make it big do sell tickets and draw crowds. Even music teachers buy into that myth. But something is lost when box office receipts becomes one’s sole motivation for doing something. If you think that something is not worth doing unless you become famous doing it, then why do it at all? I knew a teenager who once gave up swimming because her coach said she had started too late and would never be an Olympic medalist. And thinking that to be a successful writer I would have to set my goal on becoming the next James Joyce kept me from trying my hand at other types of writing.

It hasn’t always been that way. When I lived in the French House at Indiana University in 1975, several of my dorm mates were majoring in performance (violin, piano, and voice), and despite being in their late teens and early twenties they had set their sights on making it big. One of these was a Brit named Harry (not his real name), who lived a few doors down the hall from me. He was one of the few unabashedly straight males in our dorm and had little use for the campy crowd with which I hung out. He was rail thin, always seemed to be wearing gray flannel slacks, and atop his slender frame sat a large round head with angular cheekbones, closely shorn hair, and a bulging forehead. He looked a bit like a taffy apple and was arrogant as sin.

Harry  had learned, like many Brits living in the former colonies, that by simply turning on a British accent, he could reduce most Americans into fawning toadies. Me included. Once he bragged that as a girl, his mother, having been born in Dorset, England, had known Thomas Hardy and used to accompany the writer on long walks. Harry’s father once showed up looking the perfect English country gentleman–driving a Jaguar and wearing a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows.

Harry was majoring in violin and loved played the part of the sneering, temperamental artist. He treated most people with either disdain, condescension, or derision. Most of the time, he kept his door closed, and you could hear him practicing away frantically. He would emerge from time to time on weekends to join in the local soccer game in our little meadow where many foreign males would congregate. (Back then, few Americans played the sport.)

Growing up in Indiana, I had no idea about how strongly accents in England mark one’s social class. Until college, the only English accent I had ever heard belonged to Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, which of course started out as cockney. (I hadn’t become a fan of Monty Python yet.) One day I bumped into Harry in the hall and said something like “‘ello, ‘ello, ‘ello!” He looked at me and said, “It’s funny how all Americans, when they try to imitate a British accent, do cockney, which is lower class.” I also had a run in with Harry once, which caused him to dismiss me completely. One day, I walked by his door and noticed he had completely busted up his bow and taped it to the door. I knocked on his door, and when he appeared, I told him that I thought that was a really wasteful thing to do. He gave me another withering look and said, “Bows wear out. It wasn’t a great bow anyway.” Since then, I’ve learned that a great bow can cost as much as a good violin. So maybe his was expendable. He still was an asshole.

At the end of the semester, he invited everyone to his end of the year recital. He had chosen to play the Bach Chaconne from the 2nd Violin Partita. This piece ranks as one of the most intricate, soulful and passionate piece Bach wrote and it has been transcribed by a number of composers and performers for other instruments. Segovia did a version transcribed by Busoni, and I have a great version of it played by the violinist, Nathan Milstein (and today’s Youtube is a performance by that great master).

The Chaconne must put incredible demands on the violinist. Bach uses double stops quite extensively, in which produces chords and manages to create fugal patterns with bowing that alternates rapidly between the strings so that each string ends up playing a different melody.

Harry acquitted himself very well technically during this performance. It was one of the most soul-less performances I have ever seen. True, he managed to play every note flawlessly, but he literally attacked his violin with an intensity that showed that he hated the piece. His body language said “I am going to show you who’s boss.” But there was no love there, no respect for the emotions that Bach put into this piece.

I don’t know whatever happened to Harry. There don’t seem to be any Harrys among the current crop of world-famous virtuoso violinists. What astounds me is that the current set of mostly Asian female violinists–some of who are in their teens–manage to be technically brilliant and play with great emotional depth. I know from my own experience that at that age I had the emotionally nuanced range of a flat worm, so I don’t know where these kids get it. Of course, when you are a kid, the few emotions you do have run very deep, but how they are able to express a wide range is a mystery. I wonder if Harry ever softened his heart.

Great recording by Milstein of the Partitas and Sonatas

Robert Gauldin: Pavane

I was staying at a bed and breakfast this past weekend north of Philadelphia and the owners had tuned the radio to 90.1 FM, WRTI.ORG.  It was 4th of July and the station was playing a lot of Copland and Ives, which is understandable.  Then they put on this piece by an American composer named Robert Gauldin, called Pavane.  It was heartrendingly beautiful.  I did a quick google search and found a short bio on Wikipedia.  He taught composition at Eastman School of Music starting in 1963.  I went to the university page and found more details.  When I went to the web to find recordings of his works, I came up with only one recording.  I couldn’t even find a youtube performance of any of his works.

This is sad, because this one piece puts him in the pantheon of greats for me.  Well, I’m given to hyperbole, but I did find this piece quite touching.

Click hear to find a reference to the Mercury Living Presence Recording which lets you listen to an excerpt.

Can anyone help me find any recordings of this composer’s work?



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