Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14 in F Minor

One of the first composers whose name I learned was Franz Liszt. That was a result of my Hungarian ancestry. My grandfather came to the United States in 1904, and my father, though born here, grew up speaking Hungarian. I had a friend named Nick Humphrey who calls me a hot-blooded Magyar, but in truth, in my youth, I was shy and part of that also had to do with my background.

My grandfather settled in northern Indiana after going through Ellis Island. My home town, South Bend, was a huge manufacturing center because of Studebaker’s, which made Conestoga wagons in the previous century and had become a major automaker in the first half of the 20th. Huge numbers of Europeans migrated to South Bend and to the Gary, Indiana and Chicago area around the time my grandfather did. Our city had large Polish, Hungarian, Italian, Belgian and German communities. The Poles and “Hunkies” even had their own radio shows on Sunday afternoons on the local AM radio station, WSBT.

On Saturdays, we visited my Hungarian grandfather’s house and on Sundays, my Belgian grandmother’s. On both sides of the family, I had many aunts and uncles and countless cousins, so these visits in the early 60s were quite fun for me. Of course, I liked Christmas time the best, but especially at my Hungarian grandfather’s house. My dad’s sisters used to cook wonderful sweets: kifli--which were small buttery croissants of flaky pastry filled with ground walnuts, egg whites, and sugar–and kolach, a sweet yeasty bread roll filled with ground, moistened and sweetened poppy seeds.

My aunts and uncles used to talk about the culture of the Austro-Hungarian empire and particularly the composer Lizst. What’s odd is that I don’t remember ever hearing any of them play Lizst on visits to their house and none played any musical instruments that I know of. Even stranger still is that I somehow feel more of a connection to my Hungarian roots than my Belgian. Something about being Hungarian seemed to set me apart.

That feeling began to develop when my Hungarian grandfather died in 1964. My father had a younger brother named George, who at the age of 18 was crippled by arthritis, which bent his body into a 90 degree angle. Uncle George never married and lived with his parents. When grandpa died the task of caring for grandma fell to Uncle George. He was helped in that by his sister, my aunt Helen, who was married but didn’t have any children. My father used to visit to help Uncle George fix things around the house, garden, or just relieve Helen who kept house during the week.

Often, I was left inside to watch grandma, who spent most of the next six years until she died in a trapezoidal area whose corners were formed by the television, her bed, the kitchen and the bathroom. Eventually, the poor circulation in her legs limited her range to the triangle of the bed, kitchen and bathroom. My job then was to help her, when she called to me, get out of bed and shuffle to the bathroom. She spoke one word of English: “Eat!” which she would tell me as we passed through the kitchen if Helen had left some treat out for me.

This was a confusing time for me as I spent hours sitting alone in the house as the shadows lengthened, trying to occupy myself as best I could. Usually, I sat in the parlor which had huge paintings. In one Our Lady of Lourdes appeared to the children, and in another, the sacred heart of Jesus–on fire and encircled with a ring of thorns–floated in front of a life size portrait of the saviour. Sometimes I read Reader’s Digestand did the “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power” quizzes, or I would just watch television.

When my grandmother died in 1970, I had just turned 15 and I was nominated to be a pall bearer. For an adolescent, I can’t think of anything more traumatic, but I tried to take my job seriously and act dignified. Making it more affecting was the fact that that was the first time I ever saw my father cry. I thought I had pulled it off fairly well, but then afterwards people started asking me, “Was it heavy?” which seemed to me kind of sacrilegious.

Around this time, I found Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14 in F Minorin a stack of used records at a garage sale in Nowheresville, Indiana. It quickly became one of my favorite pieces and not just because Liszt was Hungarian.

Supposedly Lizst was one of the first mega-stars of serious music. He toured quite a bit performing the works of Scarlatti, Chopin and himself.  He was kind of the Michael Jackson or Tom Jones of his day. Women flocked to his concert and would throw their long white gloves onstage while he played, just as women in the 1960s would throw their underwear at Tom Jones.

Because of this, Liszt has sometimes been dismissed as more of a showman than a really great composer. True, he made his own pieces increasingly showier and technically more challenging. My friend John Kim tells me that modern pianists can only play about 60 per cent of the piano music that Liszt wrote.

But listening to the Rhapsody No. 14, you hear much more profound feelings. It begins with a funeral march, and a short melody is is played in a stately manner. You think it’s going to be a somber piece. But then Lizst starts improvising on the melody. He plays impossible chords and then these incredible glissandos at lightening speeds. They are so fluid that they always remind me of water. It finishes joyously and brings one out of any morose one might have had.

For a quiet, shy boy from Indiana born in an immigrant community, this music helped me find solace for my lonliness and gave me a glimpse of the glory to be found in art.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Air on the G String

Before starting this, I hadn’t realized the extent to which Wendy Carlos’ album “Switched-On Bach” influenced my love of classical music. My friend Kerry Wade loaned me his copy of it shortly after I met him, and I must have played it scores of times. The ebullient energy of the inventions and the Sinfonia really captivated me. It made me realize that “serious” music could be light-hearted and entertaining.

In my last post, I wrote about how baroque music could even be funny. Hopefully that entry didn’t sound like I was trivializing music from that time period. As promised, today I will write about a sublime work from that epoch, but before that, I want to suggest that composers of the baroque era might have had a sense of humor as well.

I have told you that Bach wrote a Mass for every day of the year in cantata form. Cantatas are kind of like mini-oratorios. Around the time that Bach was active, it just so happened that in Europe a new plague was sweeping over Europe. This scourge was not “The Black Death,” and in truth, probably didn’t really kill anyone. But the effects of it galvanized European culture, which it changed irreversibly.

I’m talking of course about coffee.

When coffee first arrived in Europe, it was like the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Dens of iniquity sprang up all over Europe. These were called “cafes” and the upper classes spent countless hours, wasting huge sums of money, in caffeine induced stupors. And they didn’t even have “decaf iced mocha-frappucinos.”

Public officials were outraged at this epidemic, which obviously tickled Bach. In 1732, he penned Cantata Number 211,called the “Coffee Cantata,” to be performed in a café. One of the lines from it goes:

“Ah! How sweet the taste of coffee is, sweeter than thousands of kisses…”

In all truth, the baroque period covered a span of 150 years, and though the upbeat tends to get the spotlight, you don’t have to go very far to find thoughtful, beautiful, and deeply emotive works. Today’s piece, Air on the G Stringprobably is the most well-known and beloved piece in this category. Unfortunately, since it is so well-loved, it tends to get repackaged in every compilation of thoughtful, beautiful and deeply emotive works. If you look it up on the net, for example, you’ll find it included on albums like “Classical/Quiet Nights,” “Stress Busters – Music for a Stress-Less World”, “Serene Journeys through Classical Music.”

Still, it will transport you back to a time when Starbucks did not exist and few people ever died of stress-related diseases. Just the plague, religious wars, and from not knowing about germs.

Peter Schickele: Cantata, Iphegenia In Brooklyn

I mentioned before that my friend Kerry Wade, had been a fan of Peter Schickele, who’d parodied baroque music under the nom de plume of P.D.Q Bach. Around the time of Switched-On Bach, Schickele released a comedy album, whose premise was a small classical public radio station (W.O.O.F.) at the “University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople.”

Between farm commodity reports, the announcer ran a contest called “What’s My Melodic Line?” Listeners were invited to send in the name of a piece by a baroque composer, which a panel of experts musicians then had to try to play off the top of their head. Should the listener succeed, they would be entered in a yearly competition. The grand prize was the complete works of Antonio Vivaldi recorded on “convenient 45 rpm records,” which would be sent to the winner one a week “over the next 35 years.” The composer of the day was described as ” the prolific and least known of all the prolific and little known composers of the baroque period.”

One of my favorite types of humor has always been parody, so Schickele’s poking fun at baroque music really resonated with me. Serious musicians, however, tended to look down their nose at Schickele. I’m not sure why. That someone told jokes about music didn’t stop me from listening to music.

Maybe Schickele was actually making fun of serious musicians and composers of his own day. Only a fraction of Vivaldi’s music, I recently heard, has ever been recorded. And he was prolific. Perhaps Schickele was saying, “how come today, there aren’t any composers around like that?” Or perhaps, he was criticizing how people just keep going back and recording over and over again the same old familiar stuff. Every time I turn on the radio and hear Barber’s Adiagio for Strings or Pachelbel’s Canon again, I want to throw something at it.

Finally, maybe he was making fun of the bubbly baroque style. Sometimes it is just too upbeat and gets on your nerves. Also, because of its conventions, it seems too “happy” to convey serious themes. For example, Handel wrote an oratorio called Israel in Egypt. In one chorus, the text recounts how Moses called down the plagues on Egypt. It goes something like:

“He spake the work and all manner of flies and lice descended.”

I still laugh whenever I think of that line. Schickele clearly had Handel in mind when he wrote : Cantata, Iphegenia In Brooklyn. Here is the complete text:

“ARIA: As Hyperion across the flaming sky his chariot did ride, Iphegenia herself in Brooklyn found.

RECITATIVE: And lo, she found herself within a market, and all around her fish were dying; and yet their stench did live on.

GROUND: Dying, and yet in death alive.

RECITATIVE: And in a vision Iphegenia saw her brother Orestes, who was being chased by the Amenities; and he cried out in anguish: “Oh ye gods, who knows what it is to be running? Only he who is running knows.”

ARIA: Running knows.”

Schickele scored the piece for double reeds. Normally that means oboes and English horns, but he had the musician just use the reeds, not the instruments. The result was a kind of musical Bronx cheer. In addition, the lead voice is a counter tenor, a part that requires a man with a bass voice to sing in falsetto, which imitates the castratto or male soprano which was popular back then. See what I mean by the conventions being kind of incongruous with the subject?

Obviously, the baroque era produced sublime works as well. Eventually, I will get around to discussing them. But, I want to reiterate that Schickele and the other popularization of the classics that took place in the 60s (such as “Switched-On Bach”) probably did more to help the cause of classical music than it did harm. And I will love to the day I die that horrible pun of that last aria in the Cantata, Iphegenia In Brooklyn.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Sinfonia to Cantata No. 29

Last post, I wrote about Wendy Carlos, who in 1967 released the record “Switched-On Bach,” and her contribution to electronic music. She also helped give old Johann Sebastian Bach’s career a shot in the arm as well. When I did a search on the name “Bach” on Amazon’s website, I ended up with 0ver 25,000 recordings. I once read that Bach, Beethoven and Mozart are the hottest selling classical composers these days, which indicates great staying power as Ludwig has been dead over 181 years.

By using a very modern instrument, the synthesizer, to record very old music, Carlos managed to bring a bit of feeling into what had started out as a kind of cold genre: remember that great early ’60 tinny hit, “Telstar,” played on an electric organ? It caught the attention of the boomer generation, me included.

On Carlos’ website, she attributes the choice of the tracks on the album to her producer. The genius of the choices lay in the length of each one. They were about the length of the average pop song of the era and that made them easy to digest for the younger listeners. In addition, the pieces for the most part were upbeat and “boppy,” which helped with their success. Today’s piece, for example, is a kind of fanfare, like the famous trumpets in Handel’ Watermusic.

Bach must really have liked this little piece. He used it again to open his Partita III for Unaccompanied Violin in E Major. There is also a version for organ, which Virgil Fox played when I saw him in concert in the early 70s.

If you aren’t a musicologist, as is my case, then you face the constant challenge of trying to put in words what’s going on in a piece. One way is to describe the emotions it evokes in you. The downside is the danger of becoming kind trite or maudlin. Another way to approach it is to describe the characteristics of the sounds–fast, slow, loud, soft–which makes it sound dull. You can try combining the two to come up with phrases like ebullient, joyous, festive, happy, morose, or ominous to describe the feeling of the piece, but you soon find yourself running out of adjectives and having to recycle.

Stravinsky had similar complaints, and he was probably the biggest musical genius since Beethoven. In an interview entitled “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man,” in his book Themes and Conclusions he says the following about the Adagio from Beethoven’s Ninth:

I have been so deply moved by it lately, a confession that seem s to make me guilty of the Affective Fallacy. But in fact I have always tried to distinguish between the musical object and the emotion it induces, partly on the grounds that the object is active, the emotion reactive, hence a translation….My point was simply that your feelings and my feelings are much less interesting than Beethoven’s art.

Still, I feel compelled to say something about how festive and soul-lifting I find Bach’s Sinfonia to Cantata No. 29. It makes you sit up and take notice, dust off those cobwebs of self-pity. You listen to it and feel young and joyous and happy. Oops, I just recycled. But if Bach can recycle his melodies, I will allow myself to do the same with my adjectives.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Two Part Invention in D Minor

I hadn’t intended to write about Stanley Kubrick again today. I have to refer to him again, however, in passing because the person who did the music for his films, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, Walter Carlos, was responsible for today’s piece. Carlos gets the spotlight today because of her album, released in 1967, Switched-On Bach.

Wait, you might say, didn’t he just say “her” when referring to Walter Carlos. Yes, because several years ago Carlos granted an interview to Playboy Magazine to announce that he had undergone a sex change operation, and was now Wendy Carlos. This really has nothing to do with her music, but does raise hell with the pronouns. Carlos probably has done more to change the face of modern music than any other musician, and here’s what’s unique–she’s done so both in the popular and classical realm.

Carlos studied composition at Columbia University and from early on was a proponent of computer music. She became friends and collaborator with the inventor, Robert Moog, who developed a keyboard controller for computers that generated music and thereby created the synthesizer.

Before that, creating computer music–which many of the up and coming late 20th century composers concentrated on–was insanely complicated and time consuming. For example, Peter Schickele once told the story of attending a workshop dedicated to computer music in the early 1960s. The class wrote a simple melody which they gave to the programmer. Several hours later the composers were called into the lab to hear the result. After all that work the product was a mere few seconds of sound.

Moog’s first synthesizers had some rather unpleasant limitations–you could only play one note at a time. That pretty much ruled out chords. And to get different sounds, I believe you had to plug chords in and out of what looked like an antique telephone switch board.

Despite those limitations, a number of composers and performers foresaw interesting possibilities. The pianist, Dick Hyman, for example recorded an album called “The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman,” which my brother bought and whose novel sounds completely captivated me.

In 1967 Carlos released her album, “Switched-On Bach,” from which comes today’s piece, the two part invention in D minor. I don’t know if Carlos played two keyboards hooked to two separate computers or recorded each hand’s part separately and then mixed them together. Either way, Carlos played each incredibly fast, which indicates her virtuosity at the keyboard. The result really shows Bach’s almost mathematical and meticulous genius in weaving together two complex and rapid melodies at the same time.

“Switched-On Bach” contains a number of other memorable pieces by Bach as executed by Carlos. Critics lambasted the bastardization of Bach, but the album went platinum, so it obviously appealed to a lot of us “Philistines.”

Carlos’ collaboration of Moog also resulted in the creation of the Vocorder, which allowed the synthesizing of singing. She used this effectively as part of the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange. Interestingly enough, Carlos had composed a piece entitled Timesteps as an evocation her feelings upon reading A Clockwork Orange. By an odd concatenation of events she was introduced to Kubrick, who chose her to do the music for the film.

If Carlos had a dollar for every song that used a synthesizer and every electronic keyboard with a sound library and sampling capabilities, she probably could buy Bill Gates. Just contemplate her influence. In recording “Switched-On Bach,” she really transformed the face of both classical and modern music. First, the album made baroque and serious music accessible to a new generation. Second, she gave respectability to the budding field of computer music. With the invention of the microchip, the price of creating music using these new tools fell and popular music still goes on strong. So let’s hear if for radical transformations and three cheers for Wendy Carlos.

Richard Strauss: Thus Spake Zarathustra

I have already written about some of the music in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, a Space Odyssey, of which Mad Magazine did a wonderful parody, by the way, called 201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy.) Kubrick used the opening of this piece by Strauss at the beginning of his film, I believe, when he recreates a the sun, as it might be seen viewed from space, rising over the Earth or perhaps Jupiter. Not a bad choice, really, although, since then it has been used so many times to connote something majestic, that it now seems a bit hackneyed.

Too bad, really, because the start of Thus Spake Zarathustra, the statement of the theme that recurs in different places later, does convey a sense of greatness, wonder and awe. It begins with a low rumble, which I think must come from an organ, because it seems lower than basses, almost sub-audible. The trumpets play three notes–a first, a fifth, and the octave–slowly, and then the full orchestra hits with two more notes, followed by the rumbling of the tympanis that beat out 13 more notes to end. The trumpets repeat the pattern with a slight variation in the two notes the orchestra plays. The trumpets then start anew, but this time the orchestra continues and plays, driving to a climax that ends with a chord held on the organ a few seconds after the orchestra finishes.

When I told my friend, Paul Mankowski, that the piece thrilled me, he said, “I prefer the rest of the work.” “The rest?” I asked. “Yes, that’s just the opening of an entire symphonic piece. It’s quite beautiful.” When I eventually bought it and listened to the whole thing, I could see why he like the rest.

Strauss had based this tone poem on the magnum opus of the German philosopher, Frederich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, considered to one of the thinkers whose work gave rise to Existentialism, wrote his book to illustrate a very common fin de siecle ideal, that is, the ubermensch or the “superman.” (No, not Clark Kent.) The ubermensch was an outgrowth of a number of intellectual and social currents of the time. German literature and philosophy had been greatly influenced by Greek and Roman philosophy in the 18th and 18th centuries. This was sort of hit broadside by the rise of the industrial age. The latter was seen as dehumanizing as was the proscribing of certain behaviors by the church.

The ubermensch theme came in a couple of different flavors. In Russia, Dostoyevsky wrote a novel Crime and Punishment about an intellectual named Raskolnikov, who believe he was a above the law by virtue of his intelligence. So he murders a pawn broker and her daughter as an act of will. Nietzsche’s superman, Zarathustra, was interested in trying to balance the intellect with the soul, which, being a classicist he represented by the Greek gods, Appollo, god of light, and Dionysus, god of wine, music, art and orgies (the fun one).

In the book, Thus Spake Zarathustra, the protagonist becomes enlightened after sitting in a cave somewhere and sets off to teach and experience the world. The translation I read around the time I discovered the music was written almost in a King James version of English. Zarathustra walks around spouting aphorisms like:

“Away from the market-place and from fame taketh place all that is great: away form the market-place and from fame have ever dwelt the creators of new values.”

“the late young keep young long.”

and on music:

“How charming it is that there are words and tones; are not words and tones rainbows and seeming bridges ‘twixt the eternally separated?”

You kind of get the idea that Zarathustra wouldn’t be much fun at a cocktail party. Still this was heady stuff for a Midwestern boy like me, so I went out and read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in high school. This lead to some conflict in my family. My father, being Hungarian, was sore about the Russian takeover of Hungary in 1956 and thought my reading the Russian novelist was kind of “pinko.” That lead to some interesting discussions around the dinner table, although, I must say he did teach me how to have an argument.

In Germany between WWI and WWII, it was a small leap from the ubermensch to “master race,” and some say the ideas of Nietzsche gave rise to Nazism. Strauss remained in Germany during the war, actually joining the Third Reich. One biography I read said that he couldn’t criticize the Nazis because they knew he had two Jewish grand children. This proved a problem for him during the post-war de-nazification programs. He lived until 1949, however, producing some very fine works, indeed, in his last years.

Today I listened to the full piece again, and find it full of surprises–things I did not hear in my youth. Strauss was schooled in the tradition of Schumann and Brahms, but soon abandoned that style for those of Wagner and Lizst. You can hear both threads in Zarathustra. After the beginning the orchestra plays for a while, but then it breaks into a string quartet that is quite lovely. Eventually, this gives way to some very lively passages that sound a bit like the overture to Wagner’s Meistersinger.

I’m not going to be one of those cynical curmudgeons who says “Youth is wasted on the young,” because I tend to think that during my “Nietzschean superman” phase, I probably wasn’t much fun at cocktail parties either. Strauss himself moved from this lush post-romantic phase into a very modern dissonant mode for a while before WWII, which helped reshape 20th century music. Yet at the end of his life, he wrote some of the most beautiful songs in the repertoire.

Nietzsche never got to see his “mature” phase. He died of syphilis at the ripe old age of 45. I wonder sometimes whether our own fin de siecle malaise is a repeat of weariness with materialism and a desire to recapture the soulful life style. Maybe, but I tend to regard Nitzsche as a well thought-out intellectual narcissist, whereas the modern zeitgeist is just plain old narcissism.

Joaquin Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez

A suave gentleman with graying temples stands in front of the latest “luxury” gas-guzzler from Detroit. The scene takes place in a courtyard in what looks like Seville, Spain. The man, actor Ricardo Montalban, rolls his Rs as he unctuously gushes about the “fine Corinthian leather” seats. On the soundtrack, strings swell up into a very Spanish sounding melody.

I find it odd how almost every popular American television sitcom ridicules classical music and musicians. Conductors are painted as long-haired, temperamental brats; children who play instruments are portrayed as four-eye geeks; and composers are tortured souls detached from reality. Yet the Madison Avenue advertising firm that dreamed up this ad would have you believe that buying this over-priced deathtrap will bestow “class” upon you, almost like knighthood. And they use classical music to cement that connection.

It doesn’t matter that it’s all a lie. For example, I once heard an ad executive laughing about that very car commercial with Moltalban. He said they had just made up the term “Corinthian leather.” There is no such thing. All smoke and mirrors.

There is nothing classy about a factory assembly line. (Believe me, I’ve worked on a few.) Even less so when then brunt of the work is done by robots, which completely does away with the human touch. No class at all in building a product that wastes fossil fuel, which kills over 30,000 people in the US alone every year, and which is a major source of pollution. (Been to London or Paris lately?)

Does that mean that I’d be prepared to say that a hand-crafted car like the Rolls-Royce is classy? Not really. Think about the people who buy them. Prince Charles, for example, had as tawdry a personal and romantic life as any soap opera character or inbred, hillbilly yokel from Podunksville. Please explain to me, please, how saying to your mistress “I want to be your [feminine hygiene product connotes] class.”

Actually, what is classy is the craftsmen who make the Rolls-Royce by hand, the millionaire who gives away his money, the person who does not blame others or wallow in self-pity because of setbacks or disabilities. Like today’s composer.

Joaquin Rodrigo was born in 1901. At the age of three, a measles outbreak in Spain blinded him. Despite this disability, he went on to be an accomplished pianist and then studied composition with Paul Dukas (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) in Paris. In Paris he became friends with Ravel, Milhaud, Honegger and Manuel de Falla. He stayed there for five years before returning to Spain in 1933. From then until his death he traveled lecturing and performing (piano). He lives in Madrid.

Rodrigo composed the Concierto de Aranjuez in 1939 and it became an instant success. Oddly enough, he did not play the guitar. He composed on the piano and his wife transcribed the piece for guitar. He has written 11 concertos for different instruments, and in the US he’s known primarily for the Concierto de Aranjuez and another work, Fantasia Para un Gentilhombre.

I first heard the piece on a local classical music station when in high school. Of course, I checked it out of the library immediately and played it about a million times. Though very short, at around 21 minutes, it really packs a punch. The first movement is very upbeat and sounds technically challenging for the performer. The second movement is the one that appeared in the car commerical, and which you often hear in elevators. It sounds almost stereotypically Spanish. The guitar begins the last movement and echos itself, almost like a light fugue. By the time it’s over you feel, well if not like “fine Corinthian leather,” then I don’t know what.

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