Paul Hindemith: Symphony Mathis der Maler

There is a Kurt Vonnegut story called Harrison Bergeron. The story takes place in the 2081 in some totalitarian society in which no one was 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 had 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 turns out, and the Nazi propogandist Joeseph Goebbels, denounced it 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 named 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 that our favorite comedian was Woody Allen. 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 really like for a friend. As it turned out, however, 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.”

Needles to say, Nick blew me away, 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, but I think about him whenever I see the name Geoffrey Beene.

<a href=””>Buy CD or Download MP3s of Tombeau</a><img src=”; width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” style=”border:none !important; margin:0px !important;” />

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.”

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, send him while he was composing the piece. The staccato rhythm of this dance backed by the bright clear orchestration make 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.

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.

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, 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.

Talk about synchronicity: today I attended the Spring concert of the three orchestras that make up the Potomac Valley Youth Orchestra in which my daughter plays the violin. The Wind Ensemble performed an arrangement of the second movement from The Rite of Spring. Though just high school students, they acquitted themselves quite well handling the complex rhythms.

Though 86 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 the early 1970s, several of my dorm mates were majoring in performance (violin, piano, and voice) and though in their late teens and early twenties 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.

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

Bela Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra

Sometime in college, I started developing a dislike for nationalism. Maybe it had to do with the books I was reading at the time. In high school, I read several books by Dostoyevsky; in college philosophy classes I poured over the ancient Greeks; at Indiana University I took a political science class and read Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx and Engels. Eventually these readings sent me into a left-ward direction, but more than that, they taught me to distrust political, cultural, religious and almost any other type of authoritarian institution or organization.

It just seemed that after 2,000 years of political theorizing, what it boiled down to for me was this: people seem to need to organize themselves into affiliations of like minded people so they can know what role to play, what things to believe, what protections they can expect. I tended to be drawn to socialism because it seemed that the goal was to provide for every person, which seemed closer to the beliefs I learned growing up a Catholic. But deep down, I believed that no culture or government was “the right one,” because they were all kind of arbitrary and abstract constructs based on the thinking of one or a group of men out for power. That such belief systems could lead people into wars, especially religious wars, repulsed me. Thus, I did tend to identify with underdog and revolutionary movements designed to topple these authoritarian and power-wielding structures.

This might explain my fascination with Bartok. Those of you with a linguistic background might have realized my last name is Hungarian. My father’s parents emigrated to the US around the turn of the 20th century and settled in South Bend, which was a major manufacturing center at the time. My paternal grandparents never really learned to speak English and on visits to their house, all their adult children spoke Hungarian with them. My maternal grandmother was Belgian, and her children spoke Flemish with her. It was kind of odd moving between three different cultural worlds-the third being the neutral American one at home. The one that held the most cultural attraction for me, however, was the Hungarian one, tough I did not learn to speak the language. When watching television, my father would always point out stars of Hungarian origin-the Gabors, Tony Curtis, and Ernie Kokvacs. Finally, the Hungarians just had better food-Gulyas, Paprikas, Kolac and Kifli.

And of course, as I mentioned in another of my entries, there was the music. On Sunday afternoons, a local radio station used to present “The Hungarian Hour” a bi-lingual program that played fiery gypsy and excerpts from Austro-Hungarian operettas. When I discovered the music of Bartok, based on Hungarian folk rhythms and harmonies, it was as if it switched on a circuit that had been pre-wired into the neural pathways pathways of my brain. It was a good fit.

Since Indiana University has one of the largest music schools in the world, its public radio station, WFIU, was devoted, of course, to classical music. Every Thursday evening the station aired a musical quiz show, called “The Ether Game,” whose theme music came from the second movement of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Begun in 1943, Concerto for Orchestra marks Bartok’s emergence from a creative slump engendered by his emigration to the United States in 1940 and subsequent diagnosis of leukemia. Fellow émigrés Serge Koussevitszky and Fritz Reiner commissioned the work, which so buoyed Bartok’s spirits that he was able to leave the hospital. The concerto was premiered in Boston in December of 1944, nine months before the composer’s death. Koussevitszky proclaimed the Concerto for Orchestra “the best orchestral work of the last 25 years.” Most musical scholars agree that it outshines any orchestral work composed since then as well.

I would place this work squarely on my top ten list as well. The reason has to do not so much for its beautiful, passionate melodies, which is one of the criterion I use. Rather I like it because it has so many interesting, intricate and creative features of which I never tire. Take the second movement, for example. Bartok entitled it “Giuoco della coppie” (the game of couples.) This movement starts out with a complicated rhythm played quietly on a snare drum. Bartok then introduces the theme played by a pair of bassoons, which contribute a kind of subterranean feeling. The bassoons play the same melody but at an interval of sixths, which create an odd harmony. He then continues this game with other pairs of instruments- the trumpets in seconds, the oboes in thirds, the flutes in fifths, and the clarinets in sevenths. You might say this is an interesting intellectual exercise, but the mood that Bartok creates thrills me on an emotional level as well.

Bartok had a fascination with trying to use music to capture complex emotions. He wrote about the sternness of the first movement, and referred to the “lugubrious death-song of the third.” Both of these movements also demonstrate an obsession he had with trying to recreate the sound of night, which you hear in mysterious little bubbling passages of flutes, high and rapid bowing of the violins, and low rumblings of basses.

But despite those somber themes, Bartok himself saw the piece as progressing from those mournful emotions to end in a “life-assertion” which you can clearly hear in the quite joy of the first part of the fourth movement and the exuberance of the breathless fifth movement. The title of the fourth movement, Interrupted Intermezzo, refers to a joke that Bartok throws in to lighten up the piece. It seems that while Bartok was convalescing and working on the concerto, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony had been premiered and was getting a lot of radio and performance play, because critics had hailed it as a modern masterpiece. Bartok interrupts his quiet and meticulous lyricism of this movement by throwing in a quote from Lehar’s The Merry Widow, which Shostakovich had also quoted. Bartok’s makes his quote lumbering and polka-like, and then lets the brass blow several “raspberries”, all of which poke fun of Shostakovich’s socialist-approved brassiness.

Bartok’s contribution to music is far reaching. After failing to make it as a concert pianist, he became a composer and ethnomusicologist. He scoured Hungary, Romania and Slovakia with an Edison cylindrical recording phonograph and with his compatriot Zoltan Kodaly, recorded over 9,000 peasant songs. Musicologists regard his six string quartets as being as revolutionary as Beethoven’s. What I find astounding however the few number of works for orchestra. He didn’t write any symphonies, for example. But as the Concerto for Orchestra shows, he had a deep understanding of the nuances of different instruments. Bartok knew exactly how to make them do his bidding.

Aside from this work, one last thing draws me to Bartok. When my father was born, the doctor signed his birth certificate with the Hungarian surname his parents had designated–Bela. When he got to school, the teachers anglicized it and so he went through life with the name Albert. But I think “Bela” has much more cache.

Download MP3s or Buy CD of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra from Amazon

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Even people who hate classical music would probably recognize Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. American advertisers have used it to hawk just about any product from Disneyworld to feminine hygiene deodorants. It conveys, I guess, an “olde worlde” charm, which Americans seem to lap up. This seems paradoxical since Americans also are so hell-bent on tearing down any building more than a few years old. If you really hit it big and want to show your friends that you have arrived, throw a big party and hire a string quartet, who probably can’t make a full-time living playing music, to saw away in the corner on Eine Kleine Nachtmusik while your guests suck down champagne and canapés. It’s the American dream-you can buy anything, even culture.

The first time I listened to it seriously was at the French House in 1974 or 1975. In my mind, I associate Eine Kleine Nachtmusik with a girl named Linda. Linda was one of the French House hangers-on, who had a mane of red hair and played the string bass. She had a breathy, delicate way of speaking, which she would employ when talking passionately, as she often did, about some piece of music or book she was reading in her comparative literature class. Like all musicians, Linda had a certain facility for languages, and in addition to French, she was also taking German. As I mentioned on another day, she also loved nature and was fond of identifying the various shrubs and trees. One day she and I were walking to the cafeteria, maybe talking about Mozart, or Faust, which she was reading, or plants. On the way we passed a huge conifer, which might have been a cypress, a larch or a Norwegian pine. I said to her, “How would you call that tree?” She quipped in her cutest voice, “Neine Kleine” (no little.) Which in context was a neat little pun.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik means “A Little Night Music” which is what the word, serenade, means. Serenades were for singing at night under the window of one’s beloved. I wonder whether Mozart had a particular woman in mind when he composed it. In form a serenade consists of several minuets, or dances pieces. Mozart opens his with an exuberant Allegro, which runs along at a breathtaking clip. In the second movement, he switches to a Romance, whose sweetness could indicate the passions released by a relationship. Next Mozart brings in a stately minuet, which he alternates with a melody played by a trio. The finale, in a bouree rhythm, returns to the dynamic and joyful energy of the first movement.

Mozart wrote this serenade at the ripe old age of 31. It’s catalogued as his 525th work. Some composers are known for a single work. Had Mozart only written Eine Kleine Nachtmusik his reputation would have been assured. But think scores of his other memorable works–symphonies, operas, quartets, concertos–and you realize were talking genius the size of a mountain here.

Download MP3 of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “Hm!, Hm!, Hm!,” from Die Zauberflote

Few works of classical music can make you laugh. Opera seems particularly ill-visited by the comic muse. Think of Tosca throwing herself of a parapet; Mimi dying of consumption; and Pagliacci stabbing his wife in a jealous rage. Not necessarily what I would call knee-slapping stuff. Even comic opera like The Barber of Seville doesn’t really make me dissolve in howls of laughter. But there is one aria from Die Zauberflote that does.

The opera opens with a dragon in hot pursuit of the Egyptian prince, Tamino. He swoons in fear, but just then, three ladies, the minions of the Queen of the Night, come to his rescue and slay the dragon. As noted in my previous post, Papageno then enters singing his aria, “Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja” (I am the, walrus, sorry “bird catcher”). The singing wakes Tamino, who asks if it was Papageno who saved his life. Papageno says yes, but the three ladies yell at him and for his impertinent lie, and lock his mouth shut.

There follows a hilarious duet between Tamino and Papageno, which, by dint of his condition, Papageno must hum. That piece still makes me laugh, even after 40 years.

Just why did that aria tickle my fancy so much? Probably in Mozart’s time period, people still believed in dragons and magic, so the previous scene with the dragon might have actually seemed frightening to Mozart’s audience. To relieve the stress, Mozart introduces a clown to lighten things up. I was wondering what role a willing suspension of disbelief might play in this. All opera requires this, because who in real life ever sings what’s on their mind unless they be aphasic? Maybe it’s the irony that for once a character in an opera can’t sing, and making him hum a duet despite that is funny. Good clean fun.

What this makes me realize, however, was how my sense of humor started to change as a result of living in the French House at Indiana University in the 1970s. I now wonder if the change was for the better. Until then my sense of humor had been fairly benign. I loved slapstick and corny jokes as a boy. In middle school we studied satire and sarcasm, but the intent was to poke fun of pompous authority figures. At the French House, among my highly vocal and articulate dorm mates, the two preferred forms of humor were wit and putdown, as is often the case with cliques. At the same time, because we were studying French, we all became obsessed with the concept of decadence, i.e., leading a voluptuous and sensual existence. Usually that gets translated into alcohol use and abuse, which tends to sap one’s creativity. The result was that many of us became cynical, lost our nerve, and abandoned our dreams. The clique often couldn’t deal with those who had clear goals and often these became the object of our ridicule or scorn.

I think of one of our dorm mates. He was a gifted singer, a baritone originally, who had discovered that by singing in falsetto, he had a perfect counter-tenor voice. He was active with the early music consort, and I went to see him once in a performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Since he didn’t actively seek to ingratiate himself with our clique, they sniped at him, and he didn’t seem too bothered by it. His name was Drew Minter and he went on to have an international career as a counter tenor.

I’m kind of torn up about this now. The French House was the first place I ever felt accepted for my interests by more than just one or two people. If one lacks a strong sense of self, as was my case at the time, one will gravitate and accept the values of the group that offers acceptance. Now I realize that in identifying with the group of people at the French House I did just that. So perhaps it’s time to let go of that. I am thankful for having met them all. They taught me so much. But in the words of some sage, “when your memories become more real than your dreams, the end is near.”

So since then, I tried to remain objective and non-judgmental of other groups. I’ve also tried to avoid participation in groups that tend to set themselves up as different or better than others–especially cultural or social groups.

Here’s a bio of Drew Minter and him performing Handel’s Vaghe fonti (Arioso di Ottone) from Agrippina.

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