Maria Callas sings Alfredo Catalani

Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” (“Well, then? I’ll go far away”) from Catalani’s opera, “La Wally”

Does Maria Callas need any introduction? A Greek-American soprano born in 1923 in New York, she became arguably the greatest soprano ever. Her mother and father had a tempestuous marriage, and her mother returned to Greece with Maria and siblings in 1937. Recognized for her musical precociousness, her mother, a social climber, forced her to sing starting at age five, and upon returning to Greece, tried to enroll her in the Athens Conservatoire, but she was rejected because she hadn’t been trained in the fundamentals of singing. Her mother then offered to pay a voice teacher at the Greek National Conservatoire to tutor her. After realizing the natural talent, the teacher took Callas on, refusing to let her mother pay for the lessons. Marias studied with the teacher for two years and made her public debut at the age of 15 singing an aria from Tosca. Her mother then secured another audition with the Athens Conservatoire, and this time, she was accepted, though she put off enrolling for a year so she could finish her degree at the National Conservatoire. She had her first operatic debut in 1941 in a small role in Franz von Suppé’s Boccaccio. She became renowned in Greece and it was recommended that she move to Italy to firmly establish her career as an international performer. Instead in 1945 she chose to move back to America, where she quickly took her place beside the two other great Metropolitan Opera divas of the time–Renata Tebaldi and Zinka Milanov. In the 1950s, she had a feud with Tebaldi and had this to say about her rival at the time.

“My admiration of her is of the fullest, and I am happy for her success. If I hear her sing well, I am the first to cheer her. But I live in another world. She is a vocalist of a certain repertoire. I consider myself a soprano—one who does what they used to do once upon a time. My repertoire, by God’s will and nature’s blessing, is complete. I have contributed to the history of music. I have taken music that has long been dead and buried and have brought it back to life again. If the time comes when my dear friend Renata Tebaldi will sing, among others, Norma or Lucia or Anna Bolena one night, then La Traviata or Gioconda or Medea the next—then, and only then, will we be rivals. Otherwise it is like comparing champagne with cognac. No—champagne with Coca-Cola.”

Yesterday, I was in New York City and paid a visit to Academy Records and CDs on 18th street. There I snagged this 1963 vinyl recording of Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat, one of my favorite pieces of music.

On my way out the door, I noticed a bin of free records, I looked in and found a treasure trove of works by Ravel, Faure, Brahms, and various female composers. Among them was this gem–a old Angel Records compilations of famous arias, including today’s featured piece, “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” (“Well, then? I’ll go far away”) from Catalani’s opera, “La Wally.”

Those of you who saw the 1981 movie Diva,a modern take on film noir thrillers, by Jean-Jacques Beineix will recognize this aria, whose performance of it by American soprano Wilhelmenia Fernandez. It’s a great pot-boiler with romance, suspense, zen buddhism, and a menacing bald villain.

La Wally is the name of the protagonist in Catalani’s opera. In the last scene, she throws herself into an avalanche. Because this is so hard to depict in a theatre, the opera is rarely performed. Too bad. I’d love to see if Catalani had written any other such transportive arias.

Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (7 May 1840 – 6 November 1893)

Easter Sunday is on May 2 this year in the Orthodox church. This work (the last of the three presented here), was composed in 1878 when Tchaikovsky was 38. It was immediately confiscated by church censors since there was a prohibition against Russian composers setting sacred text to “modern” music. They wanted to preserve tradition, but of course, what they thought was historically authentic had evolved over time and had many influences.

St. John Chrysostom lived the 5th century in Constantinople (the seat of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine) empire. There he rose to the position of Archbishop. John’s liturgy standardized the text and rite of the mass and that makes him one of the early church fathers. The Byzantine empire had Greek as its official language. Saints Cyril and Methodius (Byzantine Missionaries) converted the Slavs to Christianity and devised the Russian alphabet (Cyrillic), based on Greek, to transcribe Old Church Slavonic.

I spent some time this evening looking for examples of the earliest Byzantine and Russian church music and found that not so easy. Take this piece for example, sung by Sister Marie Keyrouz, a Lebanese Maronite Nun who studied musicology and anthropology at the Sorbonne, and collected ancient Greek, Syrian, and Arabic sacred music. It sounds wonderfully middle eastern, which makes sense since early Christianity started in Israel and Syria:

If you look up early Russian orthodox church music, you might find something like this:

Tchaikovsky was enthralled by such early music and while preserving the mystical or spiritually transporting feeling of these old songs, he definitely added his own Romantic flavor. However, you don’t hear much Romantic music sounding as spine-tinglingly powerful as this.

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000): Prayer of St. Gregory

Notre Dame University sits just north of my home town of South Bend, Indiana. Though famous for the fighting Irish, for me its most important contribution was having the only classical music FM station in the berg. When I was in high school and started “discovering” classical music, the channel thereby lifted the cultural profile of the town for me from desert to oasis.
On Sunday afternoons, they took caller requests. A piece that almost always showed up was Alan Hovhaness’ Symphony Nº2 “Mysterious Mountain,” which he wrote in 1955, the year I was born. I found it entrancing, from the ethereal celeste to the lone horn to the driving and cascading strings.
Hovhaness’ father was a professor of chemistry at Tufts university. He was an Armenian born in Turkey, who moved to the US before the genocide, though many of his relatives were killed during that time. He first settled in Somerville, Massachusetts, but his family moved because of racism against Armenians in that town.
Alan started composing music at the age of 4, and his parents were concerned because he would stay up late at nights composing. Devoting himself to composition after studying piano, by the age of 14 he had written two operas and caught the attention of the composer Roger Sessions, who championed his work. College was at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he learned how to play the sitar and also explored eastern music from Armenia and Turkey. He wrote his Symphony No 1 “Exiles’ as a memorial to the Armenian genocide.
In 1942, he got a scholarship to Tanglewood. There he faced discrimination from no less luminaries than Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Here’s how wikipedia describes it:
“During a seminar in composition, while a recording of Hovhaness’ first symphony was being played, Aaron Copland talked loudly in Spanish to Latin-American composers in the room; and at the end of the recording Leonard Bernstein went to the piano, played a melodic minor scale and rebuked the work as ‘cheap ghetto music.”
It’s interesting to reflect that I first heard this son of an Armenian immigrant’s music on the radio station of an Irish (immigrant) university. My grandfathers were immigrants, Hungarian (paternal) and Belgian (maternal). South Bend was full of Eastern European immigrants who left what must have been intolerable conditions before the first world war, drawn by the industries which have turned the midwest into the rust belt. Worse, it’s alarming to contemplate the abject institutional and group racism which has become entrenched in the states since 1980. Our diversity which once made us strong and great has been used as a lightning rod to divide us into tribes fighting each other to keep our eyes off the true puppet masters who maintain the institutional racism.
I didn’t put a link to “Mysterious Mountain,” here for a reason. Recently I had the pleasure of hearing for the first time, Hovhaness’ “Prayer of Saint Gregory.” St. Gregory (the illuminator) is the patron saint of Armenia, having converted the King and his court to Christianity starting in 301 AD. The King had imprisoned him in a pit under a church for around 12 years because Gregory was the son of an enemy of the King. When the King went mad, Gregory was called forth and healed him, which is why he was treated favorably thereafter.
I cannot find any mention of the prayer of St. Gregory, though he must have prayed a lot in the pit. There is another St. Gregory (the great) whose prayer I did find. I find it fits well with the indigities Hovhaness had to endure.
Prayer of St Gregory (The Great)
Acclaim To The Suffering Christ
O Lord, You received affronts
without number from Your blasphemers,
yet each day You free captive souls
from the grip of the ancient enemy.
You did not avert Your face
from the spittle of perfidy,
yet You wash souls in saving waters.
You accepted Your scourging without murmur,
yet through your meditation
You deliver us from endless chastisements.
You endured ill-treatment of all kinds,
yet You want to give us a share
in the choirs of angels in glory everlasting.
You did not refuse to be crowned with thorns,
yet You save us from the wounds of sin.
In your thirst You accepted the bitterness of gall,
yet You prepare Yourself to fill us with eternal delights.
You kept silence under the derisive homage
rendered You by Your executioners,
yet You petition the Father for us
although You are his equal in Divinity.
You came to taste death,
yet You were the Life
and had come to bring it to the dead.

Cai Yan: Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute

Here is Cai Yan’s entry on Wikipedia.  She appears as number 3 on Wikipedia’s list of female composers.  Cai Yan was born around 170 AD in China.  The daughter of a famous scholar, Cai Yang, she also studied calligraphy, poetry, and music, and was married off at the age of 15. Her first husband died, she returned home, and was subsequently captured by nomads during civil wars.  Cai Yan lived among them for twelve years and had two sons.  It seems there are three poems that she wrote detailing the sorrows of living among barbarians.  Eventually, she was ransomed by a chancellor in the name of her father.  He wanted her back because she was the last surviving member of her clan and he needed to appease the spirits.  I managed to track down three of her poems that were translated and published in 1983.  (Cai Yan and the Poems Attributed to Her, Hans H. Frankel Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews Vol. 5, No. 1/2 (Jul., 1983), pp. 133-156)).  A search on youtube for her works yielded two versions of Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute, which is today’s piece. If you scroll down below it you’ll find a translation of the “Eighteen Songs.” The article said the text was in Creative Commons. Here is the Youtube performance of “Eighteen Songs….”



July 3, birthday of Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953)

Ruth Crawford Seeger is a surprise and delight. Originally a pianist, she began studying composing after moving to Chicago from Jacksonville, Florida. In the windy city, she came under the influence of Alexander Scriabin’s music and Theosophy. After marrying Charles Seeger (a musicologist and father of Pete), she moved with him to Washington, DC, where she worked closely with John and Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress to preserve and teach American folk music. Her later life saw her arranging folk songs. Her work is breathtakingly varied and is a real find.

Sonata for Violin and Piano

Continue reading “July 3, birthday of Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953)”

March 10, Birthday of Florence Aylward (1862-1950)

This is a rerun from March 2017

Since July 2016, I have been concentrating solely on female composers.  You can read about that in my post from July 19.  If I can’t find one born on the calendar day, I may not post.  On with today’s composer.

Florence Aylward started composing music for ballads at an early age and she started to become known at the ripe old age of 12.  Here’s the Wikipedia entry for her.

Beloved, It Is Morn
The Window
Couldn’t find anything else by her

January 12, Maude Nugent (1873 or 1874 – 1958)

Since July, I have been concentrating solely on female composers.  You can read about that in my post from July 19.  If I can’t find one born on the calendar day, I may not post.  On with today’s composer.

Maude Nugent was an American singer and composer. See Wikipedia entry here.

Sweet Rosie O’Grady
Mamie Reilly sung by the Haydn Quartet with Harry Macdonough

September 10, birthday of Henry Purcell (1659)

I first heard Henry Purcell‘s music on the sound track to an X-rated film. It was Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” It was 1971; I was 16; and I was under the influence of one of the smartest people in my high school, who was captain of our swim team. You had to be 18 to see an X-rated film, so I and a few others on our swim team read the book.

Life magazine had a photo spread about the film, which stoked with our desire to see it, and when it finally reached the backwaters of South Bend, Indiana, where I was born we had to go. Of course, I couldn’t because I was under age and my friends said not to worry, they would tell the cashier at the box office they were my chaperones. The woman wouldn’t budge, and I didn’t see it. They did, and we all started acting like Burgess’ “droogies.”

On weekends we’d get drunk and engage in our own acts of “ultra-violence” like blowing up mailboxes, throwing rolls of toilet paper on the trees of cheerleaders’ parents’ houses, doing donuts (driving onto the lawn of a cheerleader’s parent’s house, spinning our wheels and turning the car in a circle).

It wasn’t until the ripe old age of 35 or so, that I got a chance to watch it on VHS tape (what we used to watch in the olden days before Netflix and youtube.) It actually disgusted me. Maybe because now I had two daughters, I did not find the scenes of rape choreographed to Rossini’s overture to “La Gazza Ladra” artistic. True it was a dark satire on the police, politics, education, school caning, and class of the UK and how that system created the main character. When the opposition party discovers that Alex has been brainwashed, they use him as a tool of propaganda and make him a celebrity. This still happens today–politicians only care about the down-trodden when they can blame their lot on the other side, as we’ve seen in many global elections.

Since I was underage, I could only enjoy the film through the book and its soundtrack. It was created by the composer Walter (now Wendy) Carlos (of Switched on Bach fame).

The piece that probably haunted me the most was Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,” which Carlos had heavily modified. Below is Carlos’s version besides a more traditional one. Which do you like?

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