Franz Schubert: (The Witch King)

So for today’s piece, I have chosen a little piece by Schubert, which I know you have heard. It’s been used in so many films and cartoons that the second you hear it, you will recognize it. It is called, “The Witch King”, and starts out with a driving rhythm of ominous and dark sounding sounding chords. In the bass line, a short, deep and portentuous melody gives the piece a wonderful sense of foreboding. This piece is the perfect accompaniment for a film where some chase takes place on a moor in the driving rain. Or, in my case, when some stupid adolescent drives his car into a tree.

When I was 16, I got my driver’s license. That marked the beginning of my independence from my parents. My mother had a black 1968 Volkswagen Beetle, that she let me use in the evening and on the weekends, and I have always enjoyed getting in a car and just driving to see where the road takes me. Perhaps that is the great metaphor of my life. The journey seems more important than the actual arrival at some distant goal. You find so many interesting things along the way. If you’re a closet Buddhist, being in a car is the perfect analogy for living in the here and now. It is an opportunity to be mindful and present in the moment.

When I was in Indiana last week, I took a drive past the former house of my best friend from high school, Gary Endicott. He lived in a small house on the edge of a pretty heft chunk of farm land that had belonged to his grandfather. The house sat a about a half mile in from the Mishawaka hills. These rose up at the south end of town quite abruptly and from then on the geography was flat farmland all the way down to about Kokomo.

I used to go to Gary’s often to either study with him on week nights or to pick him up on weekends for our drinking binges. The way to his house was a familiar one for me as Gary lived not far from my maternal grandmother and my Uncle Walt who took care of her. I would have to drive over the St. Joseph River, through the town center of Mishawaka, which had been a quaint little manufacturing town in the early part of the century, and then up Main Street to the south side of town, through Belgian town. There I would turn right on Dragoon Trail and soon take a road that forked off to the left up into the hills. Where the two roads diverged, my successful first cousin John Pairitz lived at the top of the hill in a wonderful modern house he had designed. The road took a grand, sweeping curve up to the left and where it leveled off, there stood Gary’s house. Across the street was a ramshackle barn that housed a small saw mill which still served the farmers who lived in the area.

One day, perhaps while riding with Gary, I found there was another route up to his house. Instead of turning on to Dragoon, if I drove about a quarter of a mile and then turned right, another winding road snaked up the hill past wonderfully upscale houses that lie tucked away in the hardwood forest that covered the hill. This road came emerged from the trees and then went by a few more posh houses before coming out a few yards South of Gary’s. During my senior year in high school, I used to take this road more often because a girl whom I had a crush on, Harriet Schroeder, lived on it.

I also liked this road because it was fun to drive. The winding curves presented a challenge and made me feel a bit like a race car driver in my little four speed bug. And that almost led to my undoing.

One rainy summer weekend evening, my friend Paul Mankowski called me up to go out drinking. He had a friend named Dave Baker whose parents had a big, hulking Chevrolet station wagon. “Road Party!” Paul said and I was in. We loved to get a case of beer, climb into a big boat of a car, and then drive around in the countryside until about two in the morning. (Sometimes we didn’t always drink. I remember once going out to the country to watch a meteor shower and another time lying on the roof of my Volkswagen watching the aurora borealis, one year when it came so far south you could see it in Northern Indiana.)

On the night in question, we picked up Endicott. Time has made me forget what we did that night, but I distinctly remember dropping Gary off at his house. When we started off toward home, I told them we should take the alternate route. “It has a great hill!” “Yeah,” said Paul, who knew the road as well. Unfortunately Dave didn’t. At the top of the hill, we yelled “Gun it,” and Dave took off. At the first curve, Dave lost control on the wet road and the car went sailing into the wood and hit a tree head on. I was sitting in the back seat and was hurtled forward, hit the seat with my left hip and flew over and landed in Paul’s lap. The pain at first was sharp and blinding. We all checked each other. Dave’s head had hit the windshield and he had a gash in his forehead and his nose was swollen. Paul had managed to block his impact somehow and was unscathed. He left us and ran back to the Endicott’s to get help.

An ambulance soon arrived and packed Dave and me off to the hospital. My parents met us there and were greatly relieved when the X-rays showed no broken bones. When quizzed about how it happened, we only told them that Dave didn’t know the road and had lost control on the wet pavement. We omitted the fact that we had told Dave to gun the car and had done it for the thrill of it.

Did I learn my lesson? No. After my aches and pains went away by the middle of the next week, I was back in my Volkswagen, driving like a mad man. One night, I went to Dave’s house to see the car, which Paul told me had been towed back to his parents’ house. I hopped in my car and drove so fast I almost lost control driving around a familiar curve in the road not far from my house. When I got to Dave’s I was amazed to see the car. The front of the car was in the shape of a huge “Vee” where the tree had pushed the bumper almost up to the windshield. The engine had traveled downward and bent the frame, which now almost touched the ground under the driver’s seat. Inside the back of the driver’s seat, which was one continuous piece, was bent forward into a vee shape from the impact of my body hitting it.

What amazes me now is my attitude toward the whole episode. I thought it was “cool.” I drew no lesson from it. It did not scare me. In fact, I was glad it had happened: it gave me wonderful bragging rights at school. I regaled many a captive audience at school with my account of it. And What’s more it gave me an injury, that I could make the most of. I though it would be cool to have a bad back for the rest of my life, which I could tell people came from an accident in my youth.

Cars and youth. When my daughters neared their teens years later, I started to cringe. What would happen if they turned out as wild as I was! In the prosperous Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC where I lived, alcohol was the drug of choice among high school students–it was available, and most kid thought “my parents do it too, so who are they to say?”

I’m happy to say, my daughters are 27and 25now and made it through those years quite well. Maybe because they turned out not to be big classical music fans.

Schubert Bio

Download MP3 of “Erlkönig” (The Erl-King)

Felix Mendelssohn music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream

You might wonder why I chose Mendelssohn’s music from A Midsummer’s Night Dream for today’s post.   The reason is simple: that’s where the “Wedding March” comes from. You know, the one that is played at almost every wedding.  Here’s a link to the Overture, which is delightful.  The beginning violins always makes me think of the faeries running around in Shakespeare’s play.

It reminds me of my parents, who were married for 68 years.  My mom passed away in 2008 , and dad passed away three year ago around this time at the age of 96.

In 1999, my siblings and I hosted a dinner at a local restaurant in Mishawaka, Indiana for my parents on their 60th wedding anniversary. Sixty. Six. Zero! Can you imagine? Nowadays with a national divorce rate of one in two, it’s astounding when you meet someone who stuck with it for the long haul.

I believe I know the secret to their success. It was their shared interest in dancing. They met back in the late 1930s at a dance hall which stood on the shore of Hudson Lake, which lies west of South Bend near the town of La Porte. The dance hall was close to the South Shore commuter train line that ran from South Bend all the way to Chicago. My father used to go with his friend, Johnny Peci, and try to find cute girls to dance with. Dad once told me that when he met my mom, they were so taken with each other that they never went into the dance hall that night. Instead they stayed out necking in the rumble seat of Johnny’s car.

When I was in high school, my parents started taking square dancing lessons, which became the focal point of their social life for over twenty five years. Mom used to make her own western-style dresses that flared way out from a special under-lining. Dad started wearing western shirts with turquoise cuffs and buttons and bolo ties. They had always loved camping and bought a series of recreational vehicles–campers, motor homes, and trailers–which they pulled all over the country every year to attend square dance conventions. Dad had always loved the Southwest from the western movies and pulp fiction he had grown up on, and they eventually ended up moving to Tucson back in the early 1980s.

I actually liked them taking lessons. During my sophomore through junior years of high school, they spent nearly every Thursday evening at their square dance lessons. I would do my homework and then feel like I had the whole house to myself. Sometimes I would sneak a beer, or drive to the local book store and look at girlie magazines, or just call friends (sometimes girlfriends) on the phone without having anyone looking over my shoulder.

My parents were always a very active couple. They loved camping, but also the water, and at one time we also had three canoes, a small used speedboat for water skiing, and another row boat for fishing. Most of the year we’d be canoeing somewhere or other, and in the summer we’d go down to the river and hot dog on water skis. When my oldest brother Al moved to Denver, Colorado in 1965, that gave us the excuse to make yearly excursions out west and into the Rocky Mountains where we would camp, fish, and backpack. These activities brought us close together as a family.  It gave us a cooperative activity which brought us a lot of happiness and that is an important foundation for instilling a sense of emotional well being in children.

My parents danced well into their 80s.  When they were 82, I went to my niece’s wedding in Colorado. My mother and father danced just about every song the band played-from Polka to Rock. I left the next day and later that afternoon, my mother fell down and broke her hip. She had to undergo replacement surgery and stay in the hospital undergoing therapy for several weeks. My father called and told us how lonely he was. He said he got a pair of my mother’s pajamas and held onto them, like a security blanket, when he went to sleep at night. That was such a touching image.  She recovered, though she started developing signs of Alzheimer’s after that, and she continued to swim and dance.  The last time I saw my parents dance together was in 2006, at another niece’s wedding, two years before my mom died.  Even though she had dementia and it was hard to communicate with her, when she got on the dance floor with dad, they looked lovingly into each other’s eyes.  They could have been back at Hudson Lake, falling in love again.


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Igor Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks Concerto

I’m including this work by my hero, Stravinsky today, which happened to be on the flip side of the work I discussed in my previous post–Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Stravinsky wrote this piece in 1938 on a commission from the Bliss family in Washington, DC.

The Bliss family built a huge mansion above Georgetown in Washington, DC.  Now called Dumbarton Oaks, it sits on a wonderful piece of land which they had landscaped with Italian and English gardens containing arbors, topiary, fountains and a wonderful conservatory. They furnished their mansion with bits and pieces of plundered European castles and villas. In addition, the family also collected Byzantine, pre-Columbian and Greek and Roman objects. Among their treasures was what has turned out to be the best collections of Byzantine coins in the world. They willed their estate to Harvard University, who turned it into a center of study for Byzantine and Pre-Columbian scholarship.

Commissioned by the Bliss family, Stravinsky wrote Dumbarton Oaks Concerto at the height of what is called his “neo-classical” period. After composing his revolutionary ballets Petrushka and Rite of Spring, which revolutionized notions of harmony, rhythm and orchestration, Stravinsky returned to more traditional forms. He felt a certain affinity toward Bach, having been drawn to that composer by his own teacher Rimsky-Korsakov who taught him counterpoint. Though he imitates parts of the traditional concerto form (pre-solo instruments), he manages to blend in his own unique sense of rhythm and impressionistic coloring that in parts reminds me of his earlier ballets. This is a quaint piece, extremely listenable, and a nice addition to any classical library.

I have a special place in my heart for Dumbarton Oaks. I first learned of the place when I lived in the French House from 1975- 1976. One of the guys who lived there majored in art history and concentrated on the Byzantine era. He regaled us with stories about the Emperor Justinian and the depraved Empress Theodora. But what really caught my fancy was the high art form to which the Byzantine artisans had taken mosaics. They covered entire walls, the inside of domes, and every available surface with shimmering and vibrant tiny pieces of cut glass. The themes were religious and naturalistic and are amazing.

When I lived in Italy several years later, I made a special point of visiting the city of Ravenna, which was a major Byzantine port, which has scores of churches, tombs and monuments containing mosaics. You can still go there to learn the craft of mosaic making. I stopped by one on my visit and saw the students taking long rods of colored glass and with a special, bladed hammer and anvil chop off piece of glass, called tessera, that they would use to “paint” their pictures of glass.

I’m happy now that I live just about a mile from Dumbarton Oaks and from time to time, when I need refueling I go and wander around the museum, looking at amazing works from long ago.

Download MP3s or buy CD of Stravinsky: ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ Concerto

Wikipedia Entry

Arnold Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunnaire

Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire reminds me about how, in my younger days, I tried many people’s patience. In the summer of 1976, I was listening to music like this. I hung around with Thom Klem, who was very well-read in art, literature and history, and Eric T, who was mathematically gifted. I developed a disdain for most conventional manners and customs, thinking that all intellectual pursuits were more important than archaic and bourgeois values like family, emotions and tradition. So it was logical that I would start listening to atonal and twelve-tone music.

Schoenberg came from Vienna and he began his career as a composer as the heir to the hyper-romanticism of Wagner and Mahler. Wanting to make music even more intellectual, he came up with the idea of making “atonal” or “antitonal” music. In that type of music the composer rejects all notions of key, meter, and traditional harmony. One of the best example of this is Pierrot Lunaire in which Schönberg made strict notations that the singer was supposed to utter each syllable at the appropriate pitch, but not string them together as a song. The words for the “songs” come from seven poems about madness by a Belgian symbolist poet (Albert Giraud). Fun stuff. But at the time, it suited my mood perfectly.

When my daughters were pre-teens about 13 years ago, I put on a copy of Pierrot Lunaire after dinner while we were sitting around having dessert. In about 2 minutes everyone had cleared away and I found myself alone. This music is challenging at best but I could see it somehow summing up the zeitgeist of a continent poised to rush off into that most insane waste of human life, World War I. Still, there seemed to be a lesson here. I found myself alone listening to this piece of music. What an un-human thing to do to music–make it so intellectually remote that it serves to separate rather than bring people together.

Still, I think it is interesting exercise to listen to it–once.

Wikipedia Entry on Pierrot Lunaire

Download MP3 or buy CD of Pierrot lunaire on Amazon

Ludwig Van Beethoven Symphony Number 8 in F

I discovered Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony by accident.  It came with the Karajan recording on Deutche Grammaphon the Ninth Symphony that I bought at a mall while shopping for a birthday present for my niece.  This symphony tends to get overshadowed by the Seventh and Ninth symphonies.  And it is often remembered for its “whistenable” second movement.

However, as Leonard Berstein pointed out, the first movement is really a powerhouse and has probably the longest fortissimo section of any piece of classical music ever written.  It starts around measure 130 and goes on for some 70 measures.

It is shorter than most of his other works, and on the whole, happier in tone than the two symphonies that sandwich it. In a way it has a kind of efficiency about it–the theme of each movement seems to jump from Beethoven’s mind directly. It completely lacks the long slow development of theme found in the Ninth Symphony. Indeed, that makes me think of it more in the strict classical tradition of Mozart’s symphony. Maybe it was Beethoven’s last demonstration of his mastery of that style before launching off in the convention-shattering direction of his later works.

 Berstein discusses it  in this little clip:
We know from an anecdote reported by his pupil Czerny that Beethoven probably resented it being referred to as lightweight. When Czerny asked Beethoven why it was less popular than the Seventh Symphony, Beethoven replied:  “because the Eighth is so much better.”

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Igor Stravinsky Le Renard

Stravinsky remains one of my favorite composers. I’ve already written about his L’Histoire Du Soldat, which was a kind of “commedia dell’arte” play set to his music. After that he wrote two more pieces like this, Les Noces, and today’s piece, Le Renard.

Le Renard is what you might call a “challenging” work that requires a certain amount of concentration. For example, I wouldn’t recommend downloading it to your ipod to accompany your roller-blading.  However, it dates from around the same time as L’Histoire and was also a collaboration with C.F. Ramuz, the Swiss writer.

Stravinsky had spent summers with his family in Switzerland starting 1910, and took up residency there when the borders were closed closed at the start of WWI.  During the war, he struggled to make a living and remained there until 1920.

The play, commissioned in Switzerland during 1916, was seen as a satire of Russian army and the church.  It is based on a mediaeval Russian folktale about a rooster, ram and cat that outwit a fox. He wrote it for a small ensemble and it was novel for the time, combining acrobatic dance with operatic singing.  The role of the rooster is given to a tenor or counter tenor and his warning song is somewhat dissonant and shrill.

I like the piece, however, because Stravinsky used a cymbalom, an instrument akin to a hammered dulcimer, which is used in Eastern European and Asian music. It figures prominently in Hungarian music and whenever I hear it, something stirs deep down in my bones.  Maybe it’s my Magyar heritage.

Buy CD or Download MP3s of Stravinsky’s “Le Renard”

Wikipedia Entry for “Le Renard”

Franz Liszt: Les Preludes

Some pieces of music I associate with a particular person. Take Franz Liszt’s “Les Preludes.”

It seems that I might have heard it on a request show once or twice before moving to the French House at Indiana University in 1975. There is an orchestral version of it which often appears on compilations of Mega, Blockbuster, Greatest Classical, Thundering Hits of All Times! (by Time Life). That of course is a fun piece, but it also exists as a work for solo piano, which I first heard played by an inmate of the French House.

I had written before about a guy who lived in our dorm, whose name was Kevin. He was a thin, fastidious, well dressed kid from a well-to-do family. Nothing wrong there. In fact he had superb manners and never seemed condescending to the likes of the little people like me who came from working class families. He did not get along with the people in the artsy campy clique with which I associated, and so kept to himself. I moved pretty freely among all groups in the house and he and I had a few nice conversations about music.

For his junior recital, he played an extraordinary program. It had Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” which is no piece for a shrinking violet, AND “Les Preludes.” Now Liszt was a firebrand as a concert pianist. The Mick Jagger of his day, women would swoon at his concerts and throw articles of intimate apparel at him on stage. Liszt wrote many pieces for these audiences. Les Preludes dates from the time Liszt was in his late 30s, just about the time he was giving up performing to devote the next 40 years of his life to composition and teaching. It would have been a nice swan song to cap his career as a performer.

Listening to the orchestral version today, I realized that for many years I thought “Les Preludes” was actually written by Wagner.  It has bubbling string arpeggios, bright French horns, and trumpet fanfares that are quite uplifting.  Born two years apart, Liszt was part of the circle of composers known as, “Neudeutsche Schule” (“New German School”) to which the younger Wagner belonged.  Near the end of the work, I also hear strains that remind me of the ending of the much later work, “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” by Ricard Strauss.  Funnily enough, about half way through, I swear I hear the tune, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” which is based on a French folk theme that celebrates the Battle of Malplaquet in 1709.

After his concert, Kevin moved out of the dorm, and I have no idea of what happened to him. I do remember him walking onto the stage in his tuxedo, flipping his tails out as he sat down on the bench, and the intensity with which he threw himself into his performance. One of the bad things about being a dilettante and autodidact, is that you never ever master anything like that. I wonder what it would be like to perform at that level of intellectual and emotional intensity. Is everyone capable of doing that? And what if everyone had the training to reach that? Of course, there probably wouldn’t be anyone left to work at McDonalds, but I think that is a small price to pay.

Wikipedia on Les Preludes

Liszt Biography

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Johannes Brahms: Symphony Number Three in F Major

I listened to Brahms’ Symphony Number 3 the other day. I couldn’t remember the last time I had listened to it, which astounded me, because it has one of the most beautiful and stirring movements of any piece of music I know. I am referring to the third movement, marked “poco allegro.” The entire symphony is masterfully orchestrated, but in the third movement Brahms really managed to use every instrument to evoke such strong emotions. It is a quite, meditative movement, which some might consider a bit sad. But it has a flowing, lyrical quality to it that really is sublime.

I first heard it back in 1975, and can just picture myself sitting in my dorm room listening to this and feeling sorry for myself. And now as I listen to it again, I feel those same emotions welling back up. Is that bad? So many people hurt and don’t acknowledge it and shove their pain down to get on with their lives. Sooner or later, however, it will bubble up and then they will explode, have a stress related illness, hurt someone, or their beloved will leave because they’ve become so shut down.

So don’t be afraid of sad music. It can be as therapeutic for you as it was for the composer who wrote it.

For me, I have strong association with Brahm’s symphonies and death. Why? Because during the spring of 1975, when I was living in the French House and had become taken with all of Brahm’s symphonies, my father’s best friend died. We called him Uncle Steve, though he wasn’t our uncle at all. But he and my father had grown up together during the Great Depression and they had worked together for nearly 30 years in the same factory in South Bend, Indiana.

In my youth, no one ever taught me how to deal with the death. Oh, I had been to my share of funerals, which, in my family’s tradition, consisted of open-casket viewings, a trip in the cortege to the cemetery, and afterwards, a large meal. When we viewed the body, however, most adults stood around stoically and discussion was limited usually whether or not the person looked natural or how death had come.

When paternal grandmother died, my father went up and gave her a final kiss before they closed the lid. I think my older brother, Ken, later remarked on how odd that was. Later during the church service, my father broke down and wept.

For us kids, the scores of cousins on either side of my father’s Hungarian and mother’s Belgian extended families, a funeral was a chance to get together and play, tell jokes and otherwise run rampant. I remember after my paternal grandfather’s funeral playing hide and seek in the church above the basement where the meal was being held. The reverend came up and told us to stop. Maybe this just goes to show how one’s developmental age only makes one able to process certain concepts and emotions. Unless the child was close to the adult who died, which wasn’t the case with my father’s parents, then the grieving process might not even be relevant.

For example, how many children are able to understand the concept of finality and irrevocable loss? Still, I remember having a recurring, disturbing dream for many years in which I felt a sense of dread as I saw myself approaching my grandfather’s bier. These dreams certainly were exacerbated by one funeral I attended as a young boy, which did shock me.

My father had a step cousin who had a son. I had never met the son, so I did not think anything of it one day when my father announced that he and I were going to the son’s funeral. When we got to the funeral home, however, I was shocked to see that the body in the casket was no larger than my own. He was my age-about eight. I distinctly remember being freaked out as my father took me up to kneel beside the casket and say a prayer. The undertaker had arranged the hands in a praying position and entwined a rosary through the fingers. Seeing the boy there scared me more than anything has ever done either before or after. And I notice I have butterflies in my stomach as I write about the event right now, as an adult of 59 years.

For years thereafter death scared me. It still does a bit, but less so now after reading about the death and dying process. I had to do that after my own daughter–when she reached the age of 6 or 7-started asking me about the ways people can die. What I learned in my readings is that there are age-appropriate approaches one can take to help a child deal with death, and I wished someone had used some of them on me when I was a child.

I guess I can’t really blame my parents for this–although for a long time I did. My father had two sisters, one of whom died shortly after being born and the other when she was about 14. This was in the 1920s when infant mortality in immigrant communities was pretty high and before they had developed vaccines for all the major childhood illnesses. Since death was such a matter-of-fact part of everyday life back then, people were probably just expected to get on with their life. In the West, we have it pretty cushy and our long life spans mean that you can hide old people away and have them die without disturbing things. Our cults of health and individualism have also made us think somehow that we’re immortal or that “death is optional.”

As a child, I loved to go to Uncle Steve’s house. It lay about 15 miles way out near South Bend’s airport in the middle of a fertile agricultural plain that had been formed by draining the Kankakee marsh. His house sat on the edge of a huge farm that grew corn and near another where a family had a huge peppermint oil farm. On summer visits to Uncle Steve’s, you could smell the peppermint wafting across the field.

What I liked best, however, was Uncle Steve’s house. I remember the house having a cathedral ceiling and along one wall, it was all glass and Steve had filled every surface with plants, so that it looked like a green house. But what I liked best was that it was chock-a-block with all kinds of knick-knacks and curios. It reminded me a bit of the Adam’s Family’s house–there was a footstool made from an elephant’s foot and a manic cuckoo clock, which all kids love. Steve was a kind man who always joked with us and his wife, Ann, always had wonderful Hungarian pastries on hand for us.

In 1975, on a call back home, my mother informed me that Uncle Steve was dying. He had colon cancer and he was slipping fast. She said my father had spent many evening bedside and during a later call she said Dad was pretty devastated when Uncle Steve eventually died. Dad did share how grizzly the end was with me.

Why am I telling you this? Uncle Steve died nearly 40 years ago. He wasn’t famous, or important, or particularly altruistic. Why should you care? Yet, this is what life is all about. It’s about the small sphere of influence we operate in and the people who matter to us. That’s what’s really important–how we love and treat and take care of these people. Why, then, do we care more about the death of an inbred princess who smashes her Mercedes into a bridge abutment with her lover than we care for a young girl raped and killed and thrown into a mass grave in Kosovo? Why is princess Diana’s death considered tragic, when millions still die because of ethnic conflicts, starvation, neglect and diseases for which there have been cures for nearly a century? There is more tragedy in child labor and infanticide, which are rife, than in any bored Hollywood star’s sex life.

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Johannes Brahms: Symphony Number Two in D Major

After becoming fascinated with Brahm’s first symphony, I moved on to his next two. This was during my sophomore year of college in 1975, during which I became even more enamored of Romantic movement in the arts in general and music in particular.

As I think I mentioned in my last post, it took Brahms nearly 12 years to finish his first symphony. He used to say he lived in the shadow of Beethoven, whom he worshipped, and his shyness kept him from putting himself in the same category. When his first symphony met with great acclaim, this so bolstered his spirits that he immediately set forth and penned his Symphony Number Two in D Major in a few short months.

Whereas the First Symphony contains lots of turmoil and seething emotions, the Second Symphony has been described by critics as “sunny.” Indeed, it seems related more to Beethoven’s Pastoral (Symphony Number Six), in its lyricism and lush depiction of naturalistic settings.

The first movement has a theme which is related to the melody people call “Brahm’s Lullaby.” That was an instant draw for me as I remember my mother singing that to me as I lay in my crib as a tot. The second movement starts out with a moody theme, and it is the most stormy of the movements. But Brahms manages to work this theme into a more uplifting state and by the end, you feel the sun flooding in to wash away the gray sentiments. The third movement begins with an introduction given over to the woodwinds. It has a gentleness to it, but there is a inexorable rhythm behind it. The orchestra then joins in playing very rapidly, though quietly. The rapid pace set against the quiet and lush strings gives this movement its appealing dynamism. The last movement is a spirited allegro, which remains upbeat and full of vigor and life the whole way through.

It probably wasn’t an accident that my interest in Brahms and Romanticism coincided with my first long term relationship with a woman. Considering the number of bad relationships I have seen friends go through over the years, I have to be thankful that my first one, which lasted almost two years, was overall pleasant. Her name was Linda and she had a great sense of humor, a deep appreciation for the arts, was quite even tempered, and never hurtful. I don’t remember more than a handful of arguments during our time together. Ours was a quiet relationship and we liked taking walks in forests, swimming, reading and listening to concerts. One semester I took a course in Chaucer and I had to learn to read the middle English text out loud. One of the poems, “The Miller’s Tale” is so bawdy, that it’s hard to believe. A man finds his wife is cuckolding him and when her lover climbs a ladder to steal a kiss, the husband sticks his derriere out, which the poor paramour kisses. When I read this passage out to Linda, she let forth a huge belly laugh and then held her sides as she fell to the floor laughing.

OK, so now it sounds like I’m romanticizing, for which, given the musical subject today, it seems I can be forgiven.

Download MP3 or buy CD of Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3

Johannes Brahms: Symphony Number One in C Minor

I became fascinated by the symphonies of Brahms in my third year of college, in 1975. This was not seen as odd by my fellow dorm mates in the French house where I lived (more about them below.) In high school I had heard Brahms’ fourth symphony and liked it a lot, though the rock group, Yes, had stolen a theme from it and sort of ran it into the ground. I never got tired of the first symphony, however, which still thrills me with its lush and Romantic third movement.

Brahms started writing his First Symphony when he was a mere 22 years old, but was so intimidated by the work of his hero, Beethoven, that after writing the first movement, he hid the symphony in a drawer where he left it for 12 years. Eventually he found the courage to complete the work, and finally premiered it in 1876 in Vienna.

The first movement starts out with an incredibly complex harmonic seething of the orchestra accompanied by an ominous sounding pounding of the tympanis almost like a death knell. This sets the tone of a classic Romantic struggle of emotions, and critics have linked it in many ways with Beethoven’s Ninth. The second movement goes off in quite a different, typically Brahmsian direction full of quiet but passionate lyrical passages.

My favorite movement, however, is the third, which is an allegro labeled “gracious.” It start with a clarinet playing the main theme accompanied by the orchestra and Brahms gives that instrument prominence throughout the movement. That marked the first time I had ever paid attention to the clarinet and found it capable of conveying beautiful emotions. That was a kind of revelation for me as I had been forced to play clarinet in 6th grade band and could barely produce more than a squawk from it. The last movement begins with the orchestra producing a feeling of turmoil reminiscent of the first movement. After continuing in this vein for a while, he eventually introduces a sad but lovely melody played first on the horn and then by a flute. This gives way to a wonderfully upbeat final theme, which reminds me a bit of “Pomp and Circumstances.” But then Brahms takes this and works it into a grand finish which has nothing but a sense of triumph about it.

Odds and Ends at the French House

I have written a good deal about the people who comprised the artsy-campy clique at my college dorm, the French House. Though I spent a good deal of time in their company, I did not shun the other inhabitants of the dorm. How could I? Myers-Briggs shows puts me firmly in the extrovert camp. i.e., one who gets there energy being around other people. I generally try to remain on friendly terms with just about everybody. And there were some interesting characters in the French House.

One interesting guy who springs to mind, Chuck Pirtle, hailed from a suburb of Chicago. His father taught high school English and once had John Belushi in his class whom he described as a jerk. Chuck was majoring in comparative literature and was particularly taken with the work of the Beat poets, the Dadaists, and the music of Bob Dylan. Chuck was about a year or two my junior, but he was incredibly well-read and exposed me to a wonderful world of anarchic, avante garde, satiric and subversive artists. Since I’ve always had a problem with authority figures, Chuck found fertile ground in me. I ended up developing a love for the likes of Tristan Tzara, Marcel Duchamp, and other early 20th century artists.

Chuck also worshipped Lenny Bruce, one of the first comedians to expose the racism and hypocrisy rife in the US during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Unfortunately, he had a foul mouth and mainlined heroin, so he became an easy target for the power elite. But he kind of became a test case for freedom of speech and only because of him were comedians like George Carlin and Eddie Murphy able to get away with saying the seven words that you couldn’t say on T.V.

There was a second clique in the house made up of three journalism majors, Whit, Steve and George. Whit came from Canton, Ohio and he and I became fairly good friends. He used to wow me with me stories about his high school where he said over half the staff had PHds. He had a steady girl named Margy, who went to a college in Ohio and he talked fondly of her. A big, strapping kid, Whit used to astound me with his ability to tolerate extremely hot temperatures. We had a communal showers in which you could easily scald yourself. Several times I walked in to find him standing there with the hot water just blasting on him. I once timed him and found he stayed in the shower for over 40 minutes.

Across the hall in two side by side rooms lived two other journalism major friends of Whit: Steve and George. Steve was plump and loved to sit around gossiping. George was a small waif with a pallid complexion and auburn hair that he wore in a cross between a Page Boy and a Pudding Basin shape. A few days after moving into the dorm, he started redecorating. He put up red, gauzy curtains and stuck mirror tiles on the wall opposite his bed and on the ceiling. George also kept a bottle of perfume which he would spray to create the proper mood when he entertained. And he entertained often. He had a coterie of small mousy girls who used to come to his room, and I spent many an evening chewing my leg off imagining what kind of orgies they were engaging in and wondering how a little guy like that could get girls. Steve used to spend time there as well until he and George once had a falling out which kind of poisoned the air on the floor.

Nearly forty years later, Chuck, Whit, Steve and I have all reconnected via Facebook.

Download MP3s or buy CD of Brahms: Symphony No. 1


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