Erik Satie. Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois

In an earlier entry about Satie, I described how he gave humorous, and even surrealistic titles to his works. Today’s, Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois for example, means “Sketches and flirtations of a big, wooden simpleton.” When you hear the piece which starts out with a little oom pah-pah waltz, it instantly evokes a big, dumb ox or rube from the country lumbering along a French boulevard. Yet this section has a certain sweetness to it that makes you instantly feel a certain fondness for the subject.

The second movement in this short piece has a bit of discordance to it, which might evoke a bittersweet feeling about the simpleton’s lot. The last section is a meticulous anti-waltz where the rhythm goes pah pah oom instead of oom pah pah. The composer’s execution of the piece matches perfectly the playfulness of the title.

If you ever feel yourself completely flummoxed by life or like all your best laid plans go completely wrong for some reason, well this is the perfect music to put on.

Satie Biography

Innocent Abroad, in which I visit Cannes in 1977

Fortunately for me, I wrote lots of letters during my first trip to France as a student in 1977, and some of the recipients returned them to me. They jog my memory and today remind me that after just one day in the quaint, costal town of St. Raphael, I took a local train to the city of Cannes. These letters also make me cringe at what an affected and “precious” person I once was.

Cannes struck my as a strange city and I didn’t like it all that much. Its fame lies in the movie festival, which takes place in May. In February, when I visited, it seemed pretty dead, although the climate was pretty warm.

Parts of the city were pretty. For example, the hill on which Notre Dame de l’Esperance stands really amazed me. The church has a Roman tower on one side and a rather interesting museum on the other. Below the church ran a maze of pathways and stairs, which led down, past and through villas, protected from the sun by their closeness to one another. It was so shady that green moss grew everywhere.

The museum beside the church was called the Musee de la Cestre, turned out to be a nice find. It was founded by a Dutchman in 1874 and housed a collection of artifacts from exotic and popular cultures that he had collected on his voyages. Inside, clean but very old glass cases displayed Oceanic, Chinese, Tibetan, Asian, Phoenician, Peruvian, Egyptian, Aboriginal, and Japanese items, some of which were quite ancient. There was an impressive collection of Phoenician tablets–written in Sumerian–that someone had dated 2000 B.C. The cases also contained several beautiful, Egyptian alabaster vases, visceral urns, and pots. Rome was represented by its glassware, Peru by its pottery dating from 800 A.D., China by its dishes, vases, and urns. The smallness of the museum made it all the more impressive considering the wealth of items it contained. It advertised itself as being a “Musee des Beaux Arts” but one dedicated more to “humanistic ends.”

What struck me was the naivete of the museum. It reminded me of a little museum that had once occupied an old house in my home town–full of antiques and curios that a rich dabbler had found interesting. I particularly liked the inscriptions that kept me quite entertained. One, which described a Tibetan flute, made from a human femur bordered on the poetic:

“One is made from a human femur which came from the body of a venerable personage, which confers upon it a religious value that is particularly emotive.”

This quote sort of summed up the tone of the entire museum. The collector tried to explain things. It was an altogether different experience at the time from the Louvre, where there were no such friendly explanations, and the size of the collection and the grandeur of the building dwarfed you. This little museum seemed all that a museum should be–a place where you can go to reflect on the wonder of people’s need to make things, beautiful things at that.

Besides this one nice refuge, the rest of Cannes seemed garish with its huge hotels everywhere that exploited the beach. Almost all of them looked the same, were high priced, and had casinos. However, between the beach and the hotels lay a beautiful boulevard whose median was planted with palm and cypress trees and pansies.

I would have high-tailed it out of Cannes earlier, thinking Nice might be nicer, but while reading the paper one day I noticed that Manitas de Plata, a Flamenco guitar player, was playing at the Casino Municipale on Friday night. I decided I couldn’t miss that. The semester before, my friend Thom Klem and I had discovered this guitarist on one of our forays into “international” music. Thom had bought one of his records and we used to sit up late drinking wine and talk about this soulful music, rapt in wonder at the machine-gun like rhythm pounded out by the heels of the dancers.

The night of the concert, I went along to the Municipale Casino, which dated from the turn of the century and whose theatre resembled the classic old opera houses. It had about seven stories of box seats that ran along three walls and whose railings were ornate, hand carved and painted gold. The boxes were plush and hung with curtains and we sat on individual ornate sitting-room chairs, not fixed ones. The acoustics were good and Manitas de Plata (which means little hands of silver) was superb. On stage with him were his brother and brother in law, all thin, dark and proud men dressed in black tight trousers, white shirts and black leather vests.

After the concert, I strolled around the casino and toyed with the idea of gambling a little. The place had two separate sections, one for the hoi-polloi like myself and one for the high rollers. The posh crowd would stroll in dress in black tie and tails and disappear behind a grand old door, through which I once caught a glimpse of a very grand room with a chandelier. The small fish were dressed like any middle-class French person of the day. They stood in an anteroom staring at a gaming table on which sat what looked like a roulette wheel with a gland case. It was about twice the size of roulette wheels in the movies, and the croupier used a ball about the size of a tennis ball. The wheel did not spin–instead the croupier threw a ball around its inner perimeter and it would fall into a black or red colored slot.

I thought, “what the heck” and went over and bought about $20 worth of chips. I watched to see if I could pick up any betting tips from my fellow roues, and decided to match the bets of a guy who seemed to be doing all right. In a few throws I had doubled my money. I felt elated-insulin pumped through my body, and I became convinced I could win. So I continued to bet, and in a few more throws, I was broke. But I still wanted to play. Fortunately, some reasonable part of my brain kicked in, but I remember having the feeling that one part of me actually had to forcibly drag the other out. It was that addicting! James Bond made it look so easy. But what was interesting was that the summer before, I had taken a class in probability where I learned how to calculate the odds of such games of chance. Our professor showed us that the ways the games are set up, the odds always favor the casinos. Otherwise they would not be in business. Yet despite that, a part of me wanted to go back and try it again. That put me right off gambling and except for a lottery ticket about once a year, I never indulge.

Beethoven, Post on His Symphonies by Fellow Blogger

Great post on Beethoven symphonies by a fellow blogger.

Leaping Tracks

This is the last post in our little run on the music of Beethoven and I am going to deal with all nine of his symphonies in one go. This is because I think they can in some ways all be said to be the same.

What? I hear you cry. How can you say such a thing? you may ask. What about the one that sounds like a walk in the country (the pastoral (number 6))? Or the one with singing in it (number 9)? Or the one that goes Da, Da, Da, Daaaaaaaaaaa (number 5)?

Yes, I know. Calm down. Each and every one is fabulous and wonderful, with it's own unique identify.

So why the same? Well, you know what you are going to get with any Beethoven symphony. A massive envelopment in a luxury blanket, plus a large mug of hot chocolate (with all the…

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Erik Satie. Avant-dernières pensées

For today’s piece, I have chosen Satie’s Avant-dernières pensées. This, like most of his other works, is for solo piano. The title is a play on words. “Dernières pensées” would be something like “after thoughts.” “Avant,” means “before.” So this work, which is a series of three short little musical reflections, means “Before/After-Thoughts.”

Written in 1915, they are a bit more serious than many of his other works, perhaps reflecting his disgust with World War I in which he fought briefly. The three sub-pieces are dedicated to his contemporary composers-Debussy, Dukas and Roussel. Together they form a perfect piece to listen to when taking a walk through the back streets of one’s memories, a I will now do.

A Walk on the Wild French Riviera

On the 31st of January 1977, after having stayed a mere two weeks in Paris, I left that city by train, bound for the south. You’ll never guess why. It was because of Simone de Beauvoir. Before I had left for France, my friend Thom Klem gave me the first volume of her autobiography, “The Force Of Circumstances” (La Force de L’Age). Beauvoir was the life-long confidant of the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and in her writing, she painted a picture of a purely open and equal relationship between two great minds. That became my ideal of relationships for years, which, like all perfectionist notions, eventually did more damage than good.

In Paris I had become close to a circle of Americans who’d graciously introduced me to the city. One of them, Catherine, was the daughter of an American who’d married a French while in France during World War II. As the baby of her family, and only daughter, she was a bit spoiled and threw a good tantrum from time to time.

Catherine dated a garrulous American guy. They both came from rather wealthy families. They didn’t have to pay for their trip abroad, as I had done after spending every summer since high school working in a factory. By the time I left for the South, they were already making wedding plans.

Because I had begun to adopt Beauvoir’s anti-bourgeois notions, Catherine’s relationship started to sicken me. Near the end, we got into an argument over Beauvoir. Her mother had told her that Beauvoir used to procure a constant supply of young girls for Sartre from among her students when she taught at the Sorbonne. I was outraged. This sounded like a bourgeois lie designed to discredit the intellectual and moral authority of the Left. It wasn’t until about 20 years later that I read that in some later biography of Beauvoir that the “rumor” had been true–Beauvoir even admitted it. It still strikes me odd, however, that one of the foremost feminists of ever, really, could have done that. And since I was so arrogant in my youthful attitudes, that led to my rupture with Catherine and her circle.

So I left Paris under somewhat inauspicious circumstances. I boarded a train one night at the Gare d’Austerlitz and made my way down the narrow corridor with my huge suitcase to my compartment. It was empty and I rejoiced in my solitude. I had come down with a bad cold and had one of those sore throats that feels like a knife sticking in the back of your throat. On top of that, I had a bad, hacking cough. I looked forward to a quite night’s sleep.

After I had snuggled up to against the wall of the train, the door to the compartment slid open and a whole family from the south of France piled in. Grandpa wore the traditional blue of a working man with a little “casquette” hat. Off his mouth hung a Gitanes, “Mais” cigarette, a harsh unfiltered cigarette rolled in corn-based paper (for added flavor, I guess). He tipped his hat as he walked in and sat down. His wife followed, with her babushka scarf over her head, carrying a picnic basket. I believe another husband and wife, the son and daughter-in-law, then entered with two pre-teen kids. They were nice enough, though they spoke in a rapid, southern dialect that I could not follow.

After we got moving, they broke out the picnic basket that they had provisioned with salami, bread, cheese, grapes and oranges and invited me to partake. The only bad thing about the their presence was the old guy’s cigarettes, which he proceeded to smoke the entire trip. He meant no harm. In fact, as a gesture of kindness, before he lit up, he’d always offer me the pack and say “T’en veut?” to which I’d croak out, “Non, merci,” pointing to my throat, “J’ai mal a la gorge.” He never took the hint and removed himself to the hall the entire trip. So by the time we awoke the next morning, I felt even worse.

But then I looked out the window and the view made the 11-hour ride in an eight-person train compartment smelling shoeless feet, the strong black tobacco, and paté worth it. When I first caught a glimpse of the Mediterranean, from the train at Toulon, my heart leapt with joy. In the predawn hours, the sea was quite beautiful: a mist hung over the surface, which was pierced by huge, craggy rock formations that jutted up. White stucco houses with red tile roofs studded the hillside as it ran down to the shore.

After a while, as the sun rose, the mountains started to appear. Some were of granite with white craggy faces; others of a very red rock. Both were beautifully festooned with garlands of pine trees. Our train wandered between these two races of giants and through valleys with ancient farms composed of maybe three buildings constructed god knows how long ago with motley colored stones. The valleys were just waking up, and over many hung a curtain of mist, with parts of their vineyards exposed.

As we approached St Raphael, we lost the sea, but we were compensated for the loss by the site of the hills covered with a profusion of gnarled olives and mimosa trees. I hadn’t known this, but the mimosa has an incredibly yellow-almost sulfur-flower. The flowers are composite, made up of hundreds of individual florets, about the size of chamomile. These clumps of yellow blanket the tops of the trees, so that the hill I saw looked as if someone had sifted sulfur down on top of them.

We passed Frejus–an ancient Phoenician village–and landed about two minutes later in St. Raphael. I took the first hotel I could find–a whopping 50 francs (about 10 dollars at the time)–and crashed into one surely what was one of the most comfortable beds I’ve been in for weeks. I slept for four hours, showered, and decided to take a walk, in spite of the fact that I had a pretty bad sore throat. I walked up to Fréjus–sort of well known for the Roman ruins and a 12th century church and cloisters. However, when I got there, I felt pretty weak, since I hadn’t eaten since the night before, so I stopped at a café and wolfed down two croissants and an espresso. The café was outside the gates to the ruins. I was surprised to find that the man behind the bar didn’t have an espresso machine and instead made the coffee with instant Nescafé.

I got into a small discussion with the man behind the bar about visiting the ruins. He advised against it without a guide, since there were muggers about. I decided that, since my throat was in pretty bad shape, and since I felt pretty nauseous, I had better head back to St. Raphael. On the way back, I saw the ruins of what was once a Roman aqueduct and a huge gateway. Both were made out of a brick that been fashioned out of the red, clayey earth. They had now taken on the warm dullness of worn terra cotta.

The appearance of the ruins surprised me. They sat in the midst of pretty unkempt fields that were bordered by equally seedy-looking dirt road. I thought it a bit disrespectful that they weren’t in the middle of well manicured, picturesque parks.

At a news agent on the way back to my hotel, I saw some post cards of Frejus and realized that I had missed a huge mosaic and a nice stadium and amphitheater. I would have gone back the next day, but a thing happened which made me decide to leave this area and I had to catch the train at 8:23 this morning. I also missed out on the St Raphael church, which my guidebook described as having many Byzantine elements in it.

For dinner, I went to the local market and picked up some paté made with morel mushrooms, some wine, bread, and a half kilo of oranges. When I got back to my room, I sliced into one of the oranges and had a start: the flesh was a purplish color. I opened another and another. They were all the same. It seemed like some kind of bad omen, so I threw them out. Much later, I learned that they were “blood oranges,” and were quite prized as being especially sweet and juicy.

After dinner, I went out to look for a little cinema club, which for one night was showing a film by Visconti. I missed the address–or actually read the address of the club which was sponsoring it instead of where it was actually being shown–and found myself on the other side of the railroad tracks. After walking for not more than five minutes, I was accosted by a young north African man about my age on a mobillette. He asked if I was hunting for something. I told him that I was going to Rue Victor Hugo. “Ah,” he said, and told me to go around the corner to my right. He said he would meet me at the next block to the south since the road down which I had to walk was one way. I turned the corner and eventually caught up to him. He started asking me where I wanted to go, and I told him #7 Rue Victor Hugo. He then said that if I needed a place to sleep, I could come and sleep with him. For some reason, I didn’t catch on right away. Perhaps it was due to his accent, but I didn’t comprehend, or perhaps I did, but didn’t want to believe that I was being propositioned. So I told him that I already had a room, but then he offered to come home with me.

For some reason, things didn’t quite click correctly in my mind, for when he mentioned something about “pédé” all I could say was ” pédé?” “Pédé?” ” Qu’est-ce que ca veut dire? Je ne comprends pas.” Then, once again, he pointed to the place where he was staying and asked me if I wanted to come and stay with him.” Finally, the light went on.

“Ah,” I said. “Oh,” I said. “Non, merci,” I said. “Ca va pa. Au revoir, Monsieur.” And we parted. I think I left him a little bewildered, or at least he looked so. Though at university I had many friends who were gay, being all alone in France and having that happen spooked me and so I decided to leave the next morning for Cannes.

Looking back at my letters from that time period, it wasn’t the man’s homosexuality that bothered me, I’m ashamed to say. When I had been in Paris, the group of Americans who hung around Catherine’s, used to warn me about “Arabs.” The word for them had taken on almost same derogatory content as “blacks,” in the States. I had allowed myself to fall prey to this same racist notion, though several years later I ended up going to Algeria to teach. (But that is a later story.)

Claude Debussy. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

Today, I have chosen Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, because today’s post (see below) is about being in Paris in 1977 and going to see some paintings of water lilies by Monet at the Orangerie museum. Monet’s paintings were so different that they caused a revolution in painting. Painters became more and more obsessed with abstracting out form and color and how the paint relates to the surface of the canvass and this led to the Pointillism of Seurat, the Cubism of Braque and Picasso, and the Abstract Expressionism of people like Pollock.  Debussy was influenced by Monet as well as the highly imagistic and non-linear music of the Indonesian Gamelan, which he had heard during the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889.

In the same way of the Impressionist painters, Debussy’s music influenced almost every composer of the 20th century. In the opening strains of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, for example, you can hear him quoting the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

The Prelude was Debussy’s attempt to capture the emotion evoked by a poem by the French symbolist poet, Stephen Mallarme. In this poem, a faun (a satyr or Pan-like creature) has a semi-erotic dream about a water nymph. Debussy captures the feelings of arousal, the shimmering of the water, the climax of emotion, and the post-whatsit lassitude that engulfs the faun.

Down and Out in Paris

In my last post, I described how, during my first two weeks in Paris, my moods fluctuated wildly. Some days, I would rise early with a sense of excitement and spend the entire day going through the laundry list of attractions that people had told me to pay a visit or about which I had studied while working on my degree in French. I went to the Louvre, Notre Dame, Mont Martre, Sacre Coeur, Place des Voges, and the medieval section known as the Marais. In the evenings, I went to see retrospectives of all of Bertolucci’s films up to that point in his career, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and Renais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Taking in all this culture buoyed my spirits, but at the same time an overwhelming sadness cast a pall over all my emotions.

I seemed to take to heart all the little setbacks that came my way and blame them on the city and its inhabitants. When I couldn’t find an apartment and the lead on one that seemed like a sure bet fell through, it sent me into a downward spiral. Now I see myself back then as being immature and impatient. Another thing that depressed me was that I wasn’t speaking French. I had fallen in with ex-patriot Americans and we all spoke English. Then when I would try out my French on the Parisians, they would either start talking to me in English or start railing at me about American imperialism or racism and sometimes both.

Perhaps I wasn’t prepared for the fast pace of big city life and the defense mechanisms that the citizens of Paris, like those of New York created for themselves. Truth be told, back then parts of Paris were dirty and full of people on the make. Here are a few paragraphs I wrote to my friend Thom, that kind of sum up my impressions:

“[Paris] definitely has its charms. Who hasn’t looked glowingly upon the clochards [winos] in the metro as they loll about like wine soaked walruses? Who couldn’t be happy with the beggars who exhibit mutilated feet or their unseeing eyes hoping to shock you into doling out money? Who wouldn’t reflect upon their own happy childhood seeing a little gypsy girl who hands you a note that explains that she’s very poor, how her father ran off and left her and her mother. The latter sits by looking very well fed, shoving junk food into another baby that lies, swaddled, across her lap. Ah, it makes a man feel good to be alive, I tell you Thomas!”

“I cannot begin to express to you the warmth I feel when, bustled and shoved into a cramped metro car, my glance flies hither and thither trying to avoid the glances of others who are trying to avoid my own gaze. You can stare directly at someone and nothing registers–their face is a complete blank. I suppose it’s because the women feel that to smile would be an approval of a come on?”

“It’s sort of interesting; most of what Mary [a friend of Thom’s] said about the way the French dress is true. Men cram themselves into blue jeans. Women have scarves, fur coats, and boots. But what ever your wear, it must be done in style, and everyone takes great care to develop their own. However, there are outcasts. For example, there is a cult of greasers, which one can see almost everywhere in their tight blue jeans, black leather motorcycle jackets, duck ass haircuts, etc. But even they have their own swagger and flair.”

In one of the letters that I wrote to Thom, I confess to being extremely lonely. All the new sights and sounds and smells of Paris were so overwhelming, that I wanted to have someone there to share it with. One of my fantasies was to become a writer, and I felt that if only could had had a soul mate with me in Paris, I could have become one. In truth, being on my own was probably the best thing that could have happened because I ended up writing almost continuously. I wrote letters daily to Thom and would sit in cafés for hours recording my impressions in a diary. What better way to learn how to do something than to practice it every day?

Still, I was too stupid to realize the value of that at the time, and so as I said before, I decided to buy a train ticket and go to the south of France. During my last week in Paris, I continued my sightseeing. One day I went to the Orangerie, a museum dedicated to the works of the Impressionists and the founders of modern art-Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, etc. It gets its name from having once been the green house for the Petit Palais and the Louvre where orange trees were stored during the winter. One of its treasures consists of two large elliptically shaped rooms that contain Monet’s culminating masterpiece, “Water Lilies.” This consists of four huge tableaux that cover the wall and recreated the scene on the pond on the grounds of Monet’s house at Giverny. The works represents and almost hallucinogenic or surreal experience sparked by gazing at the surface of the pond. The lilies seem to hover above the dabs of blue and green that shimmer on the rippling surface. I once read that Debussy was so taken by the evocation of moving water in Monet’s painting that he tried to capture the same sensation in his own musical compositions.

The curators of the Orangerie tried to capture the cross-fertilization between the visual and musical arts in their display of the “Water Lilies,” by playing music to heighten the artistic experience. Unfortunately, they chose to pipe in some ghastly and lugubrious contemporary music by a composer who was moved by the paintings. Why they didn’t just play some Debussy, remains a mystery to me. And believe it or not, this so offended me that it contributed to my decision to leave Paris.

Camille Saint-Saëns. Carnival of the Animals

In my past few posts, I’ve been describing my first experiences living in Paris in 1977. (See longer post below.) Since my first weeks in Paris seemed like a chaotic carnival, I’ve chosen the Saint-Saens piece today, simply for the title. The work really has nothing to do with chaos, and in fact, Saint-Saens was clearly a traditional composer who at the end of his life was horrified by the impressionism of Debussy and dissonance of Stravinsky. In fact, because he did not embrace the new composers, he became a bit reviled, but he actually was one of the greatest French composers of the 19th century. Because he had been a prodigy and then composed rapidly and prolifically, he has been dubbed the “French Mendelssohn.”

It is ironic that Saint-Saens is best known for Carnival of the Animals and especially the movement for cello entitled “The Swan.” Saint-Saëns himself was worried that it would not be taken seriously by the critics of his day so he forbade its publication. It did not see the light of day until after his death and it instantly entered into the repertory. His fear was justified—most people don’t regard him as a “heavy-weight.” That is too bad. I know it kept me from approaching his work seriously and I was blown away a couple of weeks ago when I heard a movement from one of his violin concertos, which I would rank among the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.

Saint-Saens Biography

My Carnival in Paris

My last few entries have focused on my arrival in Paris in January of 1977. Looking back over my journal entries from those first days there has proven difficult for me. When writing this post, I discovered a cache of letters that I had written at the time to my friend, Thom Klem, who remained in Bloomington, Indiana and shared an apartment with another acquaintance, David T**. At one point in our friendship, he thought it important to sent me back all my letters, for which I am eternally grateful. Otherwise, my memories of that time period might have metamorphosed into more rosy ones. Truth be told, it’s interesting to see the patterns of the depression that eventually overtook me. It also makes me marvel at how my friends remained friends despite all my wild mood swings.

During those first weeks in Paris, I went from elation and fascination to abject misery. As I mentioned, I fell right into a ready-made community of Americans who were on their junior year abroad. They were nice enough—they gave me leads on places to stay, escorted me around Paris, invited me to dinners, went to movies with me, and over all acted quite civilly toward me. Unfortunately, I had little in common with them. The all went to a private university, which meant they came from fairly well to do families. Their careers were charted for them—doctors, lawyers, MBAs. Coming from a working class background and wanting to be an artist, I felt somewhat out of place among them.

Everyone seemed paired up as well, which fed into my depression and made me feel profoundly lonely. There was a rather raw-boned, opinionated girl in the clique who took a fancy to me, but I could not find it in me to reciprocate and ended up hurting her feelings. There was one guy, who I became closer to, a Vietnamese who had been adopted by a car dealer and his wife in somewhere like Kentucky. His name was Thai H**, and I think we hit it off because we both felt like outsiders.

Thai’s mother and father had been active in the government in South Vietnam during the Vietnam war. Fearing for their children, they pulled some diplomatic strings and managed to send their child off to the US to some nice Christian couple. Thai quickly mastered English and was something of a mathematical and engineering whiz kid and was enrolled at Rice College in Texas. After Vietnam fell in 1975, his mother and father were captured by the communists and rehabilitated. When I met him in Paris, he was anguished—his mother had gotten in touch with him and was putting pressure on him to return to Vietnam and give up his posh, bourgeois life-style in the States. He had started tapping into the sizeable Vietnamese community in Paris and had even started reading some Marxist literature.

On my good days, he and I would go exploring Paris—visiting St. Etienne Du Monde church in the Latin Quarter behind the Pantheon and Sorbonne, or Sacre Coeur, Saint Chapelle, or other little gems in Paris. On bad days, I would find myself riding around on the subway for hours, as I went investigating pitiful rooms for rent at exorbitant prices. Any time things didn’t go the way I wanted, I took it personally and used it as an excuse for vilifying the city or its inhabitants. I had come to learn to speak French, but when I opened my mouth Parisians would instantly detect my accent and start speaking to me in English—sometimes English that was worse than my French. What else did I find to hate—oh yes: the weather in Paris. It seemed to rain every day and I ended up caching a horrible cold.

Originally I had intended to study French, but it that fell through. The crowd suggested going to the Alliance Francaise, but then others counseled against it. I might get stuck in a class of people from non-Indo-European language families, they warned. After become a language teacher years later, I realized that might not have been such a bad thing. We would have only been able to use French as our lingua franca, and we might have become friends. (And I might have gotten invited to some neat parties with interesting food.)

The last straw came when I thought I had finally found a room only to have it fall through. A friend of a friend had shared a flat and his roommate had moved out. I was a shoe-in. But then for some reason, he changed his mind. I figured hanging out with this group of ex-pats wasn’t doing anything for my French, so I decided to leave Paris. My plan was to head to points south—Marseilles, Cannes, or Nice—find a small cheap hotel and spend my time writing and hanging out with the locals. My grandmother had given me the address of distant cousins who reportedly lived in Grenoble. Another fallback plan was to go visit them if things didn’t work out in the south.

After that, I started feeling better emotionally. My cold, however, worsened and as I boarded the train headed for Marseilles, I began to worry about my cold. I had developed an intense sore throat and hacking cough. What if I got sick and died in a squalid little hovel on the côte d’azur?

As you’ve guessed by now, that didn’t happen and though I pity the poor tortured soul I was back then, that trip to the south of France turned out to be just what I needed.

Arthur Honegger. Pacific 231

Arthur Honegger wrote Pacific 231 back in 1923. He has been lumped in with the “The Six,” the name applied to a group of composers active in Paris at that time, which included Milhaud, Poulenc, Tailleferre, Auric and Durey. Honegger is hard to classify as a composer and his music, except for this piece, has not reached a wide audience. He seemed constantly to try on new and traditional styles of music and some feel that he does not have an easily definable “voice.”

Pacific 231 paints a sound portrait of a steam locomotive engine. It is a masterpiece of the new dissonant style of music that Stravinsky had pioneered. Of this piece, Honegger writes: “I have always had a passionate love of locomotives. What I have sought to accomplish…is not to imitate the noise of a railway engine, but rather to translate into music a visual impression and a physical sensation.” The piece starts out slowly and you can hear the thrusting of the big pistons and see the steel wheels spin until they gain enough traction to get the train rolling. The 2-3-1 of the title refers to the placement of the axles on the engine.

When I hear this piece, I think of both Stravinsky and Bartok. Stravinsky said that music should not have as its goal the imitation of nature or technology. He felt that pandered to the masses. This piece, however, shows how the new dissonance could be well done and accessible at the same time. I have not read a critique of this work by a musicologist, but it seems full of quotes of Stravinsky’s Petroushka. In addition, whenever I listen to Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra I hear echoes of Pacific 231. I don’t know if Bartok was mocking it (as he did of a work by Shostakovich) or just playing homage to Honegger. All I know is that many French composers are considered “light” but this piece demonstrates that Honegger was capable of being a 20th century heavyweight as well.

Settling into Paris

Before I left to study in Paris in January of 1977, my aunt Marty, a librarian, gave me a little travel diary. I dug it out the other day to see what impressions the “city of lights” made on me during my first few days there. It embarrasses me now somewhat to read it, because I come off as a bit of a whiner. My mood would swing from one extreme to the next-one minute loving the place and the next, despising the city and all its inhabitants. Unfortunately, it took me 17 years to recognize the signs of clinical depression and actually do something about it. I wonder how my first visit to Paris would have gone had I sailed on more of an even keel back then. As it was, I decided to leave the place after a mere 13 days.

I can’t for the life of me now remember why. After meeting Catherine and her boyfriend, Jerry, I had a ready-made community, so it had nothing to do with isolation. Jerry let me stay at his dormitory in the suburbs of Paris. On my third day in Paris, Catherine took me to the Sweetbrier offices and introduced me to her friends and we met with the director to see if he could help me find a room. We then went sightseeing and ended up sitting in a café, near the Luxembourg Gardens, and she pointed out where Gertrude Stein had lived. Later, a schoolmate named Juan stopped by. He was American, but his father was Basque so he spoke French, Spanish, and Catalonian. Juan wore a little beret and with a goatee he seemed like the perfect little revolutionary. We all ended up that night back at Catherine’s apartment, where we cooked a French meal with another friend of hers named April.

On my fourth day in Paris , I set out for the American Express office. That is where I instructed people to send my mail. The office sat in the 9th Arrondissement on Rue Scribe, which runs along side of the Opera de Paris. The 9th was the most prosperous part of Paris back in the 18th and 19th centuries. You sometimes hear of the “Grands Boulevards” of Paris, and for the most part that refers to the 9th. The Boulevard Des Capucines leads from the huge, neo-classical church, La Madeleine, to the Place de l’Opéra. From there it turns into the Boulevard des Italiens before intersecting the Boulevard Montmartre. The Boulevard Haussman runs North and West before running into the Arc de Triomphe. In this area you will find the Paris Stock Exchange, the Place de Vendome, the site of jewelers and where the writers Victor Hugo and later Colette, lived.

It was a crisp sunny morning and I walked to La Madeleine and another impressive church, St Augustin. The Conservatory of Music was not too far off, and I walked there in the hope of bumping into my old dorm mate, Bennett Morrison. He had left for Paris the semester before with the goal of studying at the conservatory with Nadia Boulanger, who had been the teacher of Leonard Bernstein and other great musicians of the 20th century. No luck.

After my sightseeing, I went back to the café where I had arranged to meet Juan when he finished his classes. I sat at a table near the window and eyed the French high school girls who had come in for a coffee and smoke after school. I hadn’t eaten lunch, so I ordered a croque monsieur. That is a kind of grilled cheese sandwich made with Gruyère and ham. It was a sandwich, right? So I picked it up with my hands and started eating it. I looked up and the high school girls were staring at me in horror. I looked at a person at a nearby table who had ordered the same dish and realized you were supposed to eat it with a knife and for. I later learned the only food you eat with your hands are sandwiches made from baguettes. Juan laughed when he arrived and I told him about my gaffe.

Juan and I had a few beers and discussed politics, life in Paris, and literature. He then took me on a tour of the Latin Quarter. We crossed over the river onto the Île de la Cité and I must have looked quite the country bumpkin when we walked out onto the plaza in front of Notre Dame cathedral and I looked up, mouth open, at the massive structure, illuminated by spotlights. We crossed back to the Left Bank over the Petit Pont, and Juan asked if I wanted to go to Shakespeare and Company. I had never heard of the place, and he told me it was an English bookstore run by an old American where I might find a place to stay.

I immediately fell in love with the place. It sits at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie in a 13th century building that had once been a monastery. The name of the street comes from the French word, bûche, which means logs because in the olden days this area had been the site where they unloaded logs that had been brought up the Seine. When you walk in the narrow, crooked shop, the first thing you note are the huge, solid chestnut beams set into the plaster of the ceiling. The walls are covered with shelves and the books go from the loose red tile floors all the way up to the 10 foot ceilings. In the middle of the front room, there is a till, at which sat a thin, older gentleman with whispy hair. This was George Whitman, an ex-pat from Boston. He welcomed us and invited us to look around. The place was full of people, some quite Bohemian-looking, and I thought I’d probably end up spending lots of time there. We had an invitation from Jerry to come by for dinner so we didn’t stay too long. On our way out, George told us to come back on Monday for the weekly poetry reading.

Juan told me that George sometimes invited people to stay and in turn for a bed they had to work a few hours a day. I filed that fact in my mind as we wove our way through the throng of people who had descended on the Latin Quarter at sundown. We walked down Rue de la Huchette. The street was lined on both sides with Greek, Algerian and Tunisian restaurants. Huge spits holding lamb meat turned by open windows where a man would slice off chunks into a piece of baguette and hand to a pedestrian. Another window in a Greek restaurant showed off an impressive display of fresh fish-red mullets, squid, octopus, and sole. At one point, Juan pointed out to me the Caveau de la Huchette, a jazz club dating back to the post-war period when this area became fashionable for intellectuals and existentialists. In its basement is the Petit Théâtre de la Huchette which has shown Ionesco’s absurdist plays, The Bald Soprano and The Lesson continuously since 1957. We passed a mammoth bookstore called Gibert Jeune, which occupied two buildings as large the department stores in my hometown in Indiana. “Yes,” I decided as we walked down into the subway, “I am definitely going to have to spend more time in this part of town.” It was the Bohemian life I was looking for.

We made our way to Catherine’s apartment where we ate dinner with Jerry and a few other friends from Sweetbrier. Jerry told me he had a friend named Richard whose roommate had moved out and was thinking about advertising the empty room. He suggested I room with Richard. That would solve all my problems. Juan and I rode the red-eye train back to Fontenay-aux-Roses. Perhaps things would work out well. Before the week was out, however, I was so disgusted with the place I was ready to leave. But I’ll leave that story for my next entry

Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de La Nuit

I chose today’s piece by Ravel, to accompany a description of my first days in Paris (see essay below). The work, for solo piano, ranks as on of the most challenging works for that instrument and showcases this musical Impressionist at the height of his powers. Influenced by Chopin and his teacher, Faure, and colleague and mentor, Debussy, Ravel chose as his inspiration, three turn of the century, symbolist poems in the style of Edgar Allen Poe. These have ominous names like, “Ondine,” who was a water sprite, “Le Gibet,” (the gallows) and “Scarbo,” which was about an evil, medieval dwarf.

Since the first movement focuses on a water sprite, Ravel pulls out all the stops on the technique invented by Debussy of repeating a cascade of notes in one hand and chords in the other to create the sound equivalent of light shimmering on water. You can imagine what Ravel does with a piece called “The Gallows.” He starts with a simple two beat syncopated rhythm played on the B flat key, which sounds like a demented church bell pealing out a death knell. The chords and progressions that Ravel chose to lay on top of this base line, have a bleak and haunting quality to them that evokes a cart of prisoners, bound for their execution. The last movement depicts the line in the poem, in which the dwarf drops from the ceiling, spins on one foot and then rolls across the floor. It starts out a slow and haunting introduction, before taking off at a break-neck speed. This movement echoes some of Debussy’s works, especially “Homage au Rameau,” but Ravel himself said he was trying to outdo a piece by a Russian composer, Mily Balakirev. The latter’s work, “Islamey,” was considered the most difficult piece ever written. Ravel did the Russian one better and pianists today still say of this piece that you need wrists and fingers of steel to play it.

Ravel Biography

Finding Friends in Paris

Earlier on this site, I implied that it was just me against the world upon my arrival in Paris in January of 1977. In fact, I did have a contact that my friend Thom Klem had given me before I left. He had gone to high school with a friend whose American father had brought back a French bride after fighting in France during World War II. This friend had a sister named Catherine, who had come to study in Paris on her junior year abroad from Sweetbriar College.

My first order of business my second day in Paris, therefore, was to find Catherine. She lived down by Place de l’Italie in the 13th Arrondissement. Now the 13th Arrondissement starts where Rue Mouffetard ends after its long descent down from the Latin Quarter. In 1977, this area was in a transitional state as it moved from an Algerian ghetto, in which old characteristic Parisian shops were being razed into a high density, urban area of apartment towers and shopping malls. This gentrification of Paris had started under the Prime Minister, George Pompidou. That plan, by the way, gave Paris its first sore thumb, the Tour Montparnasse. The was the first and last skyscraper to be built within the city walls, in which no building was supposed to be built taller than the Eiffel Tower.

The Tour Montparnasse was such a blight on the Parisian landscape, that the surrealist film director, Luis Bunuel, lambasted it in his film, The Phantom of Liberty. In that film, a sniper, armed with a high power rifle, goes to the observation deck and starts picking off pedestrians one at a time. Since the tower is so high, no one on the ground can hear the report of the gun. Pictured from the ground, each victim’s death become a grotesque, silent pantomime as their bodies jerk, they realize they’ve been shot, and then fall dead.

Eventually the police rush the sniper and take him prisoner. He is tried and found guilty but then receives a handshake from the judge and is set on his way. This is a beautiful metaphor for the soul-killing that Pompidou’s urban renewal visited on the life of Paris. The tower is a symbol of capitalism and corporate greed and implies the authorities are in collusion with the bankers.

The Place D’Italie in 1977 was a soul-less place, with little green to be found and few pedestrians on the street, since all the old shops had been destroyed. I found the right street. It was small and narrow and overshadowed by two huge apartment towers. On the corner stood a remnant from old Paris: a small, ramshackle bar from which Algerian music–punctuated by the sound of a pinball machine–blared. Following the street numbers, I walked past a garage, a bakery, and another bar.

I realized that the apartment was actually across the street in the apartment towers. The address was a bit vague, and I entered the wrong tower. As the address indicated the thirteenth floor, this was not too fun, especially since the elevator required a few centimes to run and the whole place was dark. This made the person in the apartment I did stop at reluctant to open her door even though I was a fellow American. She did whisper through the crack that I had the wrong tower and sent me on my way.

In the right tower, on the right floor, in front of the right door, I was dismayed to find myself carrying on a conversation in French with a man. This guy looked as French as anyone else I had seen so far and I had no reason to suspect him of not being so. I asked about Catherine, and he seemed a bit embarrassed to find out I was hunting for her. I explained that I was an American friend of a friend, and instantly he started speaking to me in English. He was Catherine’s boyfriend, Jerry, a fellow student at Sweetbriar.

I was a bit crestfallen. I had been fantasizing that I would fall in love with this woman I had never seen before and end up having a wonderful time in Paris. Jerry told me Catherine would be back at 4:30 that afternoon, so after talking to him for about an hour, I decided to go out sight seeing.

It was not too salubrious a neighborhood, but I was surprised to find a huge indoor mall at the base of another towering apartment complex nearby. In the mall, I found that it was an uneasy marriage between American and traditional French shopping styles. It had two levels. The ground floor contained all the clothing stores; the basement housed the traditional butchers, bakers, wine shops, and creameries. It was odd; there was a bookshop down there too. I wondered whether Parisians consider ideas a type nourishment.

Back at the Place D’Italie, I took the subway up to the other side of the river and visited the church, St Eustache. This huge edifice, the largest church in Paris after Notre Dame, sits right next to the stock exchange and the former site of Les Halles. Les Halles, one of Paris’ most characteristic markets, monstrously big from the look of it, had recently been razed to make way for a big underground shopping complex. It made Paris look odd, this gaping hole amid the run down buildings of the area.

St Eustache was a 2nd Century Martyr, and the present church was erected between 1532 and 1640 on the site of an earlier, 13th Century chapel to St. Agnes. Stylistically the church started out in the shape of a Gothic cathedral, but the builders changed their minds part way through and the decoration is classical. Inside the church, I was impressed by its size and beauty. It was odd that I chose to visit this church before Notre Dame. I knew of it, however, from my French professor the semester before who had given a lecture on the bizarre sites of Paris, of which he number this church. Richelieu and Mme de Pompadour had been baptized there, and Louis XIV took his first communion at its altar. Though turned into the Ministry of Agriculture during the Revolution and having been gutted in a fire in 1844, it was restored last century and boasts some wonderful stained glass windows. It also contains the paintingPilgrims at Emmaus, by Reubens. Because of its acoustics, concerts are given here on a magnificent organ, which continues a long musical tradition: Berlioz premiered his Te Deum here in 1855.

After this little cultural diversion, I found a restaurant nearby that had a ridiculously low priced menu. It wasn’t great, but it was filling and it was my first French meal in a French Restaurant. In truth, I later realized it was only a bar that served sit down lunches. I had a rabbit stew of some sort, a salad, bread and wine. I grabbed the mustard that was on the table and put a dollop on my plate. It was then that I realized that this mustard was made the same way as Chinese mustard: mustard powder and water. And my mouth and nostrils were almost seared.

The walk had tired me out and I was still a bit jet lagged, so I walked back to my hotel and took a nap. Around 3:30, I rose and went back to Catherine’s. She was extremely gracious and was really overjoyed to find that I was a friend of Thom Klem’s. As it turned out, Klem had gone to school with her brothers who were several years older than her, but she still counted me as a friend by extension. She made me feel at home.

Jerry was nice too. He offered to let me stay in his room at the foyer (dormitory) where he was officially staying out in a small suburb called Fontenay Aux Roses. Since he lived with Catherine, he never used the room and he was willing to let me stay there until I found a place of my own. I returned to my hotel feeling much better. Not too shabby, I thought. After just one day in Paris I had some contacts, a place to stay for free, and a ready-made community that I could hang out with. Unfortunately, taking this tack would result in a few deleterious repercussions.  But that is for another post.

Gershwin, George: An American in Paris

In the movie, Felinni’s Roma, an actor represents the director, newly arrived in Rome after World War II. The young man walks around Rome, his eyes wide with awe and wonder as he tries to absorb the sights, sounds, smells and physical beauty of the city and its inhabitants. How different from his sleepy, provincial seaside hometown. That was the way I felt on alighting from the train that brought me from Charles De Gaulle airport to the Gare du Nord in Paris in January 1977.

What better piece to write about to mark my arrival in the City Of Lights, than Gershwin’s An American in Paris? Gershwin wrote the piece in Paris in 1928, scored it later that year in Vienna, and premiered it in New York.

It starts out with a wonderful travelling sections, with a xylophone capturing perfectly the frenetic footsteps of pedestrians and the horn section imitating the blasts of taxi horns. For the premiere, Gershwin actually brought Parisian taxi horns with him, which he had bought on his trip. Despite its name, the inspiration and tone of its sections are more influenced by American jazz and rhythms than anything Parisian. By this time anyway, most European composers were aping American jazz themes and rhythms anyway.

Gershwin biography

Every time I hear this piece, I smile as I think back to my first day in Paris.

Starting in the 1950s, America started to systematically destroy its passenger railway system. It began with the commerce secretary, Charles Wilson, saying “What’s good for GM is good for the country.” Congress, kow-towing to the Big Three auto makers, then built Interstate highways and tore out tram lines. When I was 11 in 1966, my parents took my brother, Ken, and me on a train trip from Chicago to Denver. By 1977, Amtrak was almost bankrupt and most grand train stations had closed up.

In Europe, trains were very much alive. The Gare du Nord was particularly international because it serviced the trains to and from England. Inside swarmed thousands of people of all ages, race and dress, each one representing a chapter out of France’s colonial history. Subsaharan Africans strode around hawking beads and trinkets. North African men, dressed in jalabas, strode along proudly, a string of veiled women following behind. Tunisians and Moroccans in dark blue work uniforms scuttled around pushing baggage carts, dust bins, and brooms. Haughty French women in furs climbed into first class Wagon-Lits, their debonair husbands following, tipping the porters. Old ladies with pinched faces sold train tickets behind thick glass windows. Gravelly-voiced, middle-age men, their faces pock-marked and heavily lined, a Gauloise hanging off the lip, barked out the prices of magazines and newspapers, their hands shooting out to grab a bill and dispense change. Gypsy women, a toddler in tow, an infant tightly swaddled in a bundle, thrust dirty hands out to beg for money.

It took me a while to work out a plan of action. At a tobacconist, I bought a copy of Paris par Arrondissement, a wonderfully indexed book of maps, bus routes, subway lines of each section of the city. It still being early in the morning, I decided to walk the from the train station to the Left Bank. It didn’t look all that far on the map. My suitcase in hand, I started off.

At the right end of the train station, I found the Rue Du Faubourg Saint Denis which the maps showed ending at the Seine. As luck would have it, it turned out to be market day, and this road was lined with every type of shop devoted to the alimentation of the Parisian population. It was time to play the gawking, slack-jawed country bumpkin again. In my defense, however, from all sides came inputs to stimulate every sensory receptor. One section of the street was given over to cheese shops. From floor to ceiling, shelves held cheese in every size, shape and color. There were huge, hundred-pound wheels of Emmenthal, Gruyere, and Raclette. There were logs, patties, mounds and balls of Chevre, which smelled of goat. Countless small round wooden boxes held Camemberts and Bries, each with different amounts of fat. Port Salut. Pont Eveque. Roquefort. It was like a Monty Python cheese shop sketch, except they had everything!

A little bit further down the street, I came across the butchers. These were narrow bright shops, with large windows and white tile everywhere. Huge sides of beef hung on great hooks. The butchers, wearing blood-stained white smocks and holding machete-sized knives deftly carved fine filets, entrecotes, Chateaubriand, and onglets. Next came the pork butchers followed by the horse butchers. Further on, I came to a shop in whose window hung pheasants, hares, boar, and quail. Nearby were the chicken butchers in which you could buy plucked, unplucked, dressed and undressed birds.

The sidewalks of the street were only about a foot wide and near the butchers covered with wet sawdust. A sluice of water ran down the gutter and sometimes I’d see a chicken head or foot go floating by. At the street corners, little weather-beaten North African men controlled the flow of water and used brooms, made out of long twigs, to push the debris along.

Carrying the suitcase had not been a good plan. By the time I reached the Porte St. Denis, I felt its weight dragging on me, so I decided to take the subway into the Latin Quarter to find a hotel. This was back in the days before some genius started putting wheels on suitcases, and taking my big, hulking bag through the various turnstiles and up and down endless stairways of the subway proved even more tiring. The subway itself impressed me however, and today, the Paris metro remains one of my favorite in the world. They used to say that in Paris you are never more than 100 yards from a subway stop, and I don’t think there was ever a time when it did not take me where I wanted to go. The subway had its own smell–tobacco mixed with burning carbon, perspiration, underground must, urine and coffee. Not exactly heady, but you soon get used to it.

I entered the subway at the station called Strasbourg St. Denis. This was on the line that ran from the north gate of Paris, at the Porte de Clignancourt to the South at Porte d’Orleans. It runs under the Seine, stops on the Ile de la Cite, and runs through the Latin Quarter. I alit at the Place de L’Odeon, which stood about midway between the river and the Jardin Du Luxembourg, on the Boulevard St. Germain. This had been the focal point for the lost generation in the 1930s and seemed like a good place to start.

The escalator deposed me in the dead center of the Place. It was like arriving in Shangri-La. Down the Rue de l’Odeon, I could see the famous theatre and at the end, the gates of the Jardin. On that street, a rich American girl named Sylvia Beach opened a little bookstore and lending library called Shakespeare and Company. Among its customers were the names that changed the shape of 20th Century English and American literature–James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams.  The picture below shows me this past summer standing outside of bookstore that has replaced Sylvia Beach’s place.


Crossing St. Germain Across the street, I spied, “Chez Procope,” the oldest café and restaurant in Paris, where the likes of Diderot and Voltaire used to meet.  I continued in the direction of the river, eventually turning onto a road with an ominous name-Rue de l’Echaude, (Road of the Scalded Person.) It led me vaguely toward the river and the Ecole des Beaux Arts and was fairly quiet. Near the end of it, I looked up and saw a sign for a hotel–Providence Hotel. It was providential in price–it ran about 22 Francs a night, which was just under five dollars back then. The concierge led me up a tiny winding stairwell to my room, which was the only one on my landing. It was a trapezoidal-shaped cube barely large enough for a bed, an armoire, a little writing desk and a tiny sink by the head of the bed. A small window looked out on a high, narrow and gray courtyard whose only purpose seemed to be a haven for pigeons. The room smelled of pigeon dung. I was so tired I took it, feeling not unpleased at the price and its garret-like quality. What a great place to play the role of the starving artist. Completely fatigued, I flopped down on the bed and fell asleep immediately.

I slept until the late afternoon and went out for a stroll. It happened to be market day in this neighborhood as well. Once again I marveled at the presentation of food, all of it fresh and very few things pre-packaged or processed. The fish mongers had created huge ice bergs of crushed ice and laid out red mullets, plaice, sole, flounder, cod, all types of shrimp–small, large, jumbo, smoked, red, and gray-Dublin bay prawns, lobsters, salmon, trout, winkles, mussels, clams, oysters, sea snails, octopus and squid. Here I also saw for the first time fruit and vegetable stalls that put my Midwestern farmer’s markets to shame with variety and quality.

I decided to walk over to the Ile de la Cite and visit the grounds of the Louvre, the huge palace that had been turned into the world famous art museum. On my way, I passed the Place de l’Institut, which houses the Academie Francaise in a 17th Century grand, colonnaded structure with a bronze dome. There I crossed the river on the Pont Des Arts, a pedestrian bridge. It was getting late, the sun was sinking so I hurried through the courtyard of the Louvre, and made my way back to bridge. As I crossed, the clouds broke and the setting sun shot a few golden rays down on the Institut and the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Just the thing to buoy my spirits.

I wandered through the market, picked up a log of goat cheese, some oranges, a loaf of bread and made it back to my hotel. There I flipped on the radio and tried to follow a very intellectual discussion on the arts and politics before falling asleep.

Johann Sebastian Bach Brandenburg Concerto Number 5 in D Major

I chose today’s piece, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 5 because the first movement always gives me the impression of forward movement. It would be a perfect accompaniment to a scene from a movie where a horse-drawn coach, pulled by a chestnut gelding, trundles along a French country lane. (Or a 21 year-old on his first visit to France–see an excerpt from my memoir below). It always puts me in a light and happy mood.

The liner notes to my old vinyl recording of this concerto, conducted by Pablo Casals, states that it is the only one of the six Brandenburgs to treat the keyboard as an integral member of the featured instruments. In the others that have a keyboard, it is merely played as a continuo, that is a harmonic accompaniment. In the fifth concerto, however, the keyboard definitely the most important instrument. On the recording I have, the keyboard part was performed on piano by Rudolf Serkin, a rather famous pianist in the second third of this century.

Bach gives the second movement over to an unaccompanied trio consisting of flute, violin and keyboard. Serkin, I believe, was noted for his chamber playing, and on this recording, the trio plays the slow and pensive “affetuoso” movement with grace and feeling.

Bach gets our feet tapping again in the third movement with another fast tempo, this time a gigue. It starts out as a round with the violin stating the twelve-note theme of a fugue. Next, the flute joins in with the theme followed next by the piano. Finally the rest of orchestra picks up the fourth voice in the fugue and the piece continues on its rapid way, each instruments weaving in and out and around one another in an intricate pattern. About, three quarters of the way through, the fugue ends, and so Back restarts it again in the same order-violin, flute, piano and orchestra.

I was just thinking how intricate the last movement was, and how complex it must be for an orchestra to play. But then I remembered that he wrote two-part, three-part, four-part, and five-part inventions for keyboard. How taxing that must be for the poor piano player, you might think. But what about his great organ pieces, like the Tocatta and Fugue in D minor in which the organist also uses each leg as well on the foot keyboard! Bach manage to build such complex and revolutionary pieces out of basics forms of his day. They were new and revolutionary and yet stood on the solid ground of the tradition in which he grew up. See, you can be creative and interesting without tearing everything down.

Download MP3 or buy CDs of Johann Sebastian Bach: 6 Brandenburg Concertos / 4 Orchestral Suites – The English Concert / Trevor Pinnock


Landing in France

The 747 circled lazily over the French countryside. I must confess that my nose was pressed against the window as we descended and the swatches and daubs of colors turned into farmland and small towns. I had flown before, of course, and was therefore used to seeing shopping malls, mass-produced houses made of ticky-tacky, and industrial-sized farms from above. But seeing France from the air took my by surprise. It was as if the whole fabric of how the landscape–and hence how one saw the world–were woven out of different material.

The small villages sat at the crossroads of two roads, lined by hedgerows that ran through the fields. These town had an organic appearance. Vaguely round, sometimes bisected by a creek or small river, they were a complex interweave of trees, honey-colored stone walls, gray roofs and winding lanes. Sometimes, at the apex of one of the small conurbations, I’d see the shiny gray slate roof of a church and its spire pointing skyward. It was like looking down on an entirely different and ancient but vibrant world.

For the first time in my life, I had a feeling of stepping into the great river of history and somehow being connected to it. It was a feeling of homecoming. For some reason, American life and popular culture have seemed somewhat foreign to me. Most of the really successful people here say we must look to the future and those who can’t change and adapt are doomed. Unfortunately that usually gets interpreted as rejecting all the traditions, history and disciplines that got us here in the first place. Perhaps growing up as the grandson of immigrants made me feel more connected to the “old world.” Maybe that’s retrogressive of me, but I see the wasteful alternative played out on a daily basis as people constantly reinvent the wheel.

I soon learned France was a place that was both keenly aware of its past and could embrace the trends of the future as well. Take the airport where I landed-Charles De Gaulle. In January of 1977 when I first landed there, it was one of the most modern airports in the world, and it still seems that way to me in my mind’s eye. Your plane lands at one of the satellite terminals and you take incredibly long moving walkways to the main terminal where you collect your bags. Inside, you must take an escalator inside a glass tube that passes through a central circular atrium, like the veins of some huge organism.

The second thing that struck me about France was how it smelled. As soon as the door opened into the terminal a pungent smell met my nose. It was a mixture of the smells of coffee, chocolate, real butter, perspiration and the ubiquitous black tobacco cigarettes–Gauloise and Gitanes.

After gawking like a tourist for about an hour and passing through customs, I managed to find out that a bus would take me to a train that would drop me at the Gare du Nord. While waiting for the bus, I walked over to a little café cum news stand and bought a croissant. The semester before, my friend Thom Klem, had taught me how they make croissants. You make a pastry dough, roll it out, spread it with a layer of butter, fold it up, roll it out again, and repeat this procedure a few more times. The layers of fat and dough are what makes them so light and rich at the same time.

The croissant I bought during my first hour in France was a bit of a disappointment, but I savored the moment anyway. I climbed on the train at Charles De Gualle airport, which slid through the small track-side towns, then suburbs and finally past the high rise apartment buildings of the 18 arrondissement. Here I was, a bumpkin from Indiana, thousands of miles away from home in a place where no one at all knew me. It was now up to me to find my way through this new world all on my own. I had to find a place to stay, get myself enrolled in classes and manage my funds to last until June. What a wonderful journey I was beginning.

George Crumb: Ancient Voices of Children

The year before going abroad for the first time in 1977, I had started listening to more and more 20th Century “classical” music. My interest in this music probably started with Stravinsky, spread to Bartok, and lead me to the hardcore German atonalists-Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

Fancying myself on alternate days as something of an avant gardiste, an anti-bourgeoisie, and even a Dadaist, I listened to these pieces more for their philosophical and intellectual interest rather than how pleasing they sounded. This type of music became so reductionist at the end that composers often would write on a page of sheet music the instruction: “Improvise!”

Another famous composer, John Cage wrote a piece called 4′ 33″ which consisted of a pianist sitting still at a piano not playing for four minutes and 33 seconds. Around that time, I began to find modern works too taxing, and the public and composers must have dones so as well because in the past 20 years the pendulum has swung back and modern music has become much more palatable.

George Crumb, a modern composer born in 1929, hit his stride in the late 60s and early 70s and his music is about as avant garde as you can get. However, there is something about today’s piece, Ancient Voices of Children, which I instantly found alluring, and I still enjoy it today. It dates from 1970, and seems to signal the beginning of a new direction in music.

In Ancient Voices of Children, Crumb set the poetry of Federico Garcia-Lorca to music. Crumb said his goal was to create “musical images that enhance the powerful, yet strangely haunting imagery of Lorca’s poetry.” To this end, Crumb employed prepared instruments–mandolins tuned out of key, pianos with pieces of junk stuck in the strings, a harp with sheets of paper woven into the strings.

Crumb also had the mezzo-soprano sing into the strings of the piano to give her voice haunting overtones. At one point, he has the oboist pull out a harmonica, and at other times the percussionist bangs on Tibetan prayer stones, Japanese temple bells and a tom tom. What always charmed and fascinated me about this piece, however, was the inclusion of a toy piano in one passage of the work. It adds a child-like quality and relief after a gripping and very serious mood. Perhaps this sums up the short poem by Lorca:

my heart of silk
is filled with lights,
with lost bells,
with lilies, and with bees, and I will go very far,
farther than those hills,
farther than the seas,
close to the stars,
to ask Christ the lord,
to give me back
my ancient soul of a child.

Crumb was 41 when he wrote this piece. Perhaps he was expressing the lament of every middle aged person thinking about the lost opportunities one wasted in one’s youth or the child-like wonder at the magic of life and all things new before one falls prey to cynicism as many do. Perhaps that sense of the inherent sadness of the human condition is what gives the work its depth. And for me, it still has enough mystery and beauty to it that gives it a certain staying power.

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