Peter Tschaikowsky. Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major

This wonderful violin concerto by Tchaikowsky is considered equal to the great ones of Beethoven and Brahms.  It’s supposedly technically difficult, which might be one of the reasons a contemporary critic, Eduard Hanslick, lambasted the Violin Concerto as a musical composition “whose stink one can hear.  Written during the period after he broke up with this wife, he originally dedicated it to the violinist,  Iosif Kotek, with whom Tchaikowsky had an intense relationship.  His homosexuality was something he wrestled with and even called his “shameful vice,” and the attitude of the time caused him to get married twice, both of which marriages ended badly.  Still this period produced this masterpiece, his opera “Eugene Onegin,” and his Fourth Symphony.  Gives one cause to think about what his life might have been like had gay marriage been legal at the time.

This piece has nothing to do with my entry, today, which describes my visit to Barcelona in 1977, with two friends, Chris and Inge, and about whom I’ve written in earlier posts.


Holy Week in Barcelona

After Inge left, Chris and I explored Barcelona as we tried to figure out what she had meant to us. Chris hadn’t gotten too emotionally bound up in her. A tall, ebullient, Nordic-American with strawberry blond hair and blue eyes, he’d spent the last several months jumping from bed to bed across most of Europe. He loved life and the sexual liberation he’d found in Europe and was happy now to be in Spain, a country with a warmer climate and striking people. Chris talked about his adventures openly. Perhaps this is what attracted women to him—they knew he’d be an enthusiastic lover and would not hang around moping afterward.

Which is the kind of person I was—a moper. I had invested a lot of emotional energy trying to woo Inge and her departure to Majorca left me hurt and feeling abandoned. Still, Chris and I had a lot of fun together. We decided to spend the rest of the week in Barcelona, after which I’d return to Paris by train and he’d go south to Valencia.

It was Holy Week, and as the city prepared for Easter, things quietened down and the city seemed to take on a more spiritual feeling. On Maunday Thursday, we set out to visit the cathedral, which lay in the medieval part of the city. Until then, we’d spent most of our time near the port and in the lower class, workers’ parts of town. The area around the cathedral had a totally different feel to it. It rose up from the Ramblas on a low hill. The streets were narrower and I seemed to remember the buildings being stucco and half-timbered, with elaborate leaded glass windows. As we neared the center of the quarter, we noted more and more people, dressed in black streaming in that direction. I think we stopped somewhere for a coffee and as we stood getting our bearings, a frail, shrunken old Spanish widow, dressed in a long black coat and holding a missal, shuffled by. I stared at her for a moment—from under her coat, two little toothpick-thin bowed legs shifted back and forth. She looked a bit like an automaton—her eyes seemed kind of glassy, and she was almost pulled in the direction of the cathedral.

After a while, Chris and I started off the way the woman had gone. The street ran under the wooden loges and covered passageways that connected the buildings on either side. The way was paved with tuffa, the volcanic rock of the Mediterranean region, and it was worn smooth by the feet of the pilgrims over the centuries. We turned a corner and the street started to rise more steeply. I looked up and there was the little black widow, still shuffling along, missal in her hand. We were about 20 feet behind her when she suddenly slipped on the smooth pavement and fell flat on her face. What was odd, though, was that her little stick legs continued to shuffle back and forth as she lay there. She looked a bit like a beetle that had been flipped over on its back, its legs flailing to try to right itself. Chris and I ran to help her up. When we got her back on her feet, she did not even acknowledge up, but instantly continued on her way to the cathedral.

The square in front of the cathedral was filled with people carrying candles and when we went in, the church was ablaze with them as well. Since I had been in Paris, for me Notre Dame was the cathedral by which I measured all others. So, snobbishly, I didn’t think so much of the place. It seemed smaller and more morose than Notre Dame. One thing that struck me, however, was how much more the Spaniards worshipped the Madonna than the French. In a little side chapel, there was a shrine to the Virgin Mary. A statue of her stood behind a large iron grill-work door, which was firmly locked. All over the bars, people had hung votive offerings, the first time I’d ever seen this practice. With bright red ribbons, they had tied little silver images of arms, legs, eyes, and stomachs with a prayer to the Virgin to heal that afflicted body part.

By this time in my life, I had revolted against the Catholic church, but there was always something that drew me to the mystery and the rituals of the religion of my youth. There was something touching about these little votive offerings. They demonstrated a faith—a belief they had a direct relationship to God. There was no middle-man, in terms of a religious authority. Back then, I thought this demonstrated weakness—I was an existentialist, after all. I believed in the teachings of Jean-Paul Sartre who said: “you are what you do,” and I felt that anyone could do anything. A good humanist, I believed man was the measure of all things and that God was irrelevant. Of course I believed in Freud and the notion that we were all driven by base instincts, which we had to master through intellectual self-inquiry. Nowadays, I see that spirituality and prayer are also valid ways to heal oneself. Our intellectual inquiry has only begun to scratch the surface of the complexity of the human mind and spirit. Men are now working on computers that will mimic human behaviors, thoughts, and eventually emotions. But, so what if someone doesn’t stop along the way to ask, what does it mean to be human?

As I said, Chris and I had some good times together in Barcelona, but on the Saturday we parted ways, promising to write eachother and keep in touch. After he left, I walked to a tobacconist and bought a pipe and a pouch of shag. Then I went to the train station and bought a ticket for Paris. On the train, I sat in a compartment with an old man, who wore a little blue beret and a threadbare green coat. I spoke a little Spanish, back then and we managed to carry on a bit of a conversation. He was a farmer from up around Figueras, who was returning home after having spent the week with his daughter who lived in Barcelona. I wanted to see what he had thought of Franco—whether he had a been a fascist sympathizer or had communistic sympathies. He seemed a bit nervous about speaking freely—perhaps that’s what came of living in a police state. Yet at one point he pulled out a girlie magazine and slapped it on my lap. “You couldn’t buy those under Franco!” he declared triumphantly. I was surprised. Was that all that free speech meant to him?

Pablo de Sarasate: Fantaisie de Concert sur des motifs d l’opera “Carmen”

Perhaps it is fitting to choose a piece for today based on music that comes from an opera about a love triangle. (Please see my article below about visiting Barcelona in 1977.)  Composed in 1883, eight years after Carmen’s disastrous premier and after its revival in Paris, the Fantaisie... is one of those pieces designed to show off virtuoso violin playing. It is full of incredibly high, almost ethereal harmonics and complicated double stops that almost chill you to the bone. Then there are the devilishly fast passages with bouncing bows and rapid pizzicatos that seem capable of generating sparks. Gaudi’s Gaudy Architecture The main reason I wanted to visit Barcelona in April of 1977 was to see first-hand the works of the Art Nouveau architect, Antonio Gaudí. His surrealistic buildings captivated me the first time I came upon them in an art history book in college. Gaudí’s work seemed to be a last reaction against the straight lines and harsh angles of the cold machine age. Gaudí on the other hand, incorporated organic and naturalistic shapes into his buildings, some of which looked as if they were melting, others as if they would start sprouting tendrils. Gaudí was able to bring his visionary design to light because of a wealthy patron name Guell, and created for him a palatial dwelling, a public park, and several apartment buildings. Indeed, Gaudí’s presence is such an integral part of Barcelona that had he not lived, I am sure it would not have given us the likes of Picasso, Dali, and Miro. So, on our excursions out, I dragged my traveling companions, Inge and Chris, to various parts of the city where Gaudí had created his fantastic buildings and public spaces. My first goal was to locate the Casa Mila, an apartment building that has an undulating, organic façade and looks kind of like a big, bloated puff-ball mushroom. It appears in a number of art history books, and it had shown up in a film by Michelangelo Antonioni called “The Passenger” which I had seen the year before. In one scene in the film, Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider go onto the roof, which has white, surrealistic chimneys decorated with brightly colored stones and tiles. I wanted to see if we could do the same. We found the Casa Mila in a fairly nice part of town. It is in the shape of the letter “L” and we ducked into the bottom of the short leg into the main courtyard just as it started to rain. This courtyard had been covered over and the misguided owners had carved up the interior space in an attempt to create a number of little trendy boutiques, but which were quite hideous. One was full of late 1970’s disco gear and I seem to remembers a silver mannequin with a black afro wig, 6-inch platform shoes, a blue cape and a black feather boa. We eventually found a long sweeping stairway that followed the interior wall of the courtyard up to the next level. I looked up and saw that Gaudí had covered the ceiling with wild and colorful frescoes. Unfortunately, they hadn’t been maintained and they were now flaking and peelings. They could have been “The Last Supper” for all you could tell. I wondered what the hell the condo association was spending its money on if not the upkeep of the building. We took an elevator to the top floor and emerged, completely amazed at what we saw–there didn’t seem to be a single straight line in the place. The wall curved gently around the inner courtyard and the floors and door frames were all made of a lovely, honey-colored wood. The walls were creamy stucco. We wondered around the floor passing a number of locked doors. Eventually we found ourselves back where we started but there was a change: one of the doors that had been closed was now open. I pushed it open a little further and looked in. It was dark but when my eyes adjusted, I saw it was a stairwell leading upward. I stuck my head in and a drop of water struck my forehead. I looked up and saw these ghostly shapes suspended above me. They were sheets. It was wash day, and because it was raining, someone had hung their laundry in the stairwell because they couldn?t put it up on the roof. I persuaded Chris and Inge to follow me, and we emerged onto the roof. It was grand! It looked like Gaudí had sculpted the rooftop out of meringue. He had created a tiled walkway that leads around the outside of the L-shaped building. This walkway went up and down like a huge roller coaster. The walls were white and inlaid with colored glass and semi-precious stone and Gaudi had built a continuous low bench into the wall that ran round the perimeter. Though it was blowing rain, we felt like kids in a giant playground and we peered over the walls looking for various landmarks. We spotted Gaudí ‘s church, La Sagrada Familia, in the distance, his Parque Guell, the port and the Luna Park to the south.


After coming down to the street, we ducking into a bar/restaurant and ordered a tortilla and my usual Campari and soda. At the bar, I notices they sold cigars and when I went up to investigate realized they were Cuban. I asked the barrista what they called them and she said “puros.” I bought one of these fat, thick stogies and lit it up, much to the disgust of Inge and Chris. Inge announced that she was going to leave for Majorca in a day or two and Chris and I looked each other. Back in Paris, I had tried to form a romantic relationship with this dour, self-abusing, German existentialist. We had long deep discussions and part of me thought she might be my soul mate. Then Chris, the free spirit from California, came along and they instantly bonded. Chris and I were staying in Shakespeare and Company and we all hung out together, so I was invited along to Barcelona, though I felt a bit of a fifth wheel. Now Inge was announcing that she was off to Majorca and she did not invite either of us along. After lunch it stopped raining and we continued on our way in search of the next Gaudí building. As we walked, I puffed my puro pensively and looked at the buildings, the streets and the sidewalks, trying to get a feel for the city. Suddenly a pattern in the sidewalk caught my attention. I looked carefully and realized the sidewalk was made up of molded tiles with an intricate, interlocking pattern. They reminded me a bit of those morphing tile patterns of M. C. Escher, in which black birds flying one way interlock with white birds flying in the opposite direction. When I pointed this out to Chris and Inge, the latter said that she had read in her guide book that Gaudí had designed these tiles as well.


Seeing these tiles tickled me. First, because I liked the idea that Gaudi had been able to turn his ideas into reality and change the physical environment around him to fit his visionary dreams. Second, these tiles represented a connection with Spain’s Moorish past. Islam is an iconoclastic religion and artistic representations of people were forbidden. Artists therefore turned their talents filling spaces with visually interesting organic forms and curlicues. Eventually these became more and more abstract and became into repeating tile patterns that covered unused space. Think of the Blue Mosque or Arabic calligraphy. The Moors had conquered Spain and brought their artistic traditions with them, which showed up in these tiles of Gaudí. Eventually, we found Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, the roof of which he designed in the shape of a giant multi-colored dragon.  It has the most wonderful facade, the apex of Art Nouveau.


Later we went to the Parque Guell, which has two cascading stairways, between which Gaudí created a fantastic, dragon-shaped fountain that crawls down the hill and belches water to greet the visitors as they enter the park.


These works show how the freer Gaudí became to do what he wanted the more organic and fantastic his works became. He became so engrossed by his work that he turned into a long-haired hermit, who often slept in a shack on the building sites for his structures. A day or two later, Chris and I woke early and met Inge, whom we escorted to the port and the ferry that took her to Majorca. Afterwards, Chris and I sat around planning what to do next. He decided to go south to Valencia and me back to Paris. Palm Sunday was coming in a few days, however, and I persuaded him to remain so we could see a few of the spectacles leading up to Easter, and so we spent the next few days exploring the city, eventually becoming friends and trying to deconstruct what had happened between us and Inge. But more on that later.

What instrument should you play? reblog

Got this from tumblr today from a humorous classical music site. Enjoy.


Manuel de Falla. Nights in the Garden of Spain

Today’s piece is probably the most well known of Falla’s. It evokes the Moorish palaces, the cyprus and orange trees, the fountains and tiles of the cities of Grenada and Seville. The orchestration owes its debt to the lush and colorful impressionistic style that Debussy and Ravel, Falla’s teachers, pioneered. It’s quite atmospheric.  It’s a great piece to listen to as I think back to my first visit to Spain in 1977 (read below).

A Shot in the Dark

Something about Flamenco music has always appealed to me. In the 1960s, when they still broadcast variety shows on television, from time to time you’d get a glimpse of this stylized but intensely passionate art form. In the fall of 1976, the semester before I went to France, my friend Thom Klem and I became fascinated with Flamenco and bought several albums. One of them, the liner notes said that whenever a particularly gifted singer went off on a particularly soulful riff, another might say, “Eso es!” This was short for “Eso es canto moro!” (That’s a real Moorish song.”) Kind of like saying, it’s the real McCoy. This shows just how much influence the moors had on Spain and Spanish music.
A number of the best Flamenco musicians in Spain are Roma. Because of my Hungarian ancestry, I feel some sort of soulful connection to this music.

Now, Barcelona does not have the reputation as the best place in Spain to go and see the best Flamenco. Supposedly that distinction goes to Grenada and Seville. But, when Inge, Chris and I hitchhiked to Barcelona in the Spring of 1977, we didn’t know that. So one night we set off together in search of a club that Inge had read about. Supposedly you could see the real Flamenco there.

The bar turned out to sit in the very earthy and old section of town near the port where we had visited a small Romanesque church, as I described in my last entry. That worried me a little because it was not what you would call a salubrious neighborhood. When we got there about seven or eight o’clock in the evening, the streets were oddly quiet. We hadn’t yet figured out the Spanish schedule. They eat very late in the evening and then go out for their evening promenade at 10, 11, or 12 at night.

We found the club and walked in. It took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, but when they did we saw we were the only customers in the place. We sat down at a table, and immediately a group of people swarmed around us. They consisted of two guitar players, a couple of guys in puffy shirts, and a couple of tall dark, middle aged women in bright lurid sateen dresses.

The spokesman for this group asked us if we had come to listen to Flamenco music. We said yes. Then he asked if we would like for them to play for us. Inge answered yes, and the man said for that to happen, we would have to buy them a round of whiskey. We did so and were charged what seemed an exorbitant price (at least for me, a student). At the time, I had some nagging doubts about being ripped off, but then they started to play.

I was transported! The men had such soulful voices. The two singers also clapped out an intricately syncopated rhythm that made them sound like about 20 people clapping. After the first song, the women stood up and started to dance. The heels of their high, thick black shoes exploded in staccato burst as they pounded out the rhythm. The men joined them and they performed an intense dance while staring intently into each others eyes, like two grouse locked in a courtship dance.

Here’s a modern example.  Imagine these musicians and dancers sitting next to you and performing!

When they finished, they asked if we would like to buy them more whiskey. We demurred and took the cue that it was time to leave. I was a bit disappointed but nevertheless I had seen real Flamenco. Though it may not have been under the best circumstance it seemed real and vital. Maybe this was even more valuable. Suppose the place had been full of tourists or in a great hall. Never would we have gotten so close to them nor had our own personal performance.

Back outside, the streets had filled with people. We started off in the direction of our pension and had to wind our way through the knots of people out for their walks. It seemed like a tough crowd–no pale northern European types like us. The crowd was composed of young swells, and sailors, and plump women in dowdy old sweaters. It unsettled me and I encouraged Chris and Inge to hurry.

We turned the corner onto another crowded street and got about midway down the block when we found ourselves even with what looked like members of a gang. They were scruffy young toughs in leather trousers and open shirts. I bristled a bit when I saw them and I tried to look away and keep on our way. As we passed the, out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the men reach into his shirt and pull a pistol out that he had had tucked into his belt. He pointed the gun up and in the direction of another man in the group and shouted something. The crowd started to scatter and I yelled to Chris and Inge “He’s got a gun!” and we took off running. We got to the Ramblas before looking back and realized that the crowd had closed up behind us and no one else seemed alarm.

If my last two entries paint a somewhat unfavorable picture of Barcelona, I apologize. Remember this was 22 years ago and just after Franco had died. On our subsequent outings in the city, we found much to love and charm us. But that is for another day.

Manuel de Falla. El Amor Brujo

I have heard this piece many times in my life before, but I never knew its name until just a few years ago. However, you can tell immediately that a Spanish composer penned it. Two of the most famous dances from it are “The Dance of Terror,” and “The Ritual Fire Dance.” Falla studied in Paris and was part of a circle of composers that fell under the influence of Debussy, Ravel and Dukas. Like Albinez, the Spanish musicologist, Pedrell, encouraged Falla to incorporate Spanish themes and tunes.  “El Amor Brujo” premiered in Barcelona in 1915, and it evokes memories of my visit to that city in 1977, which I describe below.

As he matured, Falla became a reclusive and intensely religious. Stravinsky once describe Falla as being “the most unpityingly religious person I have ever known-and the least sensible to manifestations of humor.” And it is odd that he would compose a work called El Amor Brujo, (Love, the Magician), the music for a one act ballet. Falla briefly sided with Franco during the Spanish Civil War, probably because of the anti-religious sentiments of the communists. However, those sentiments continued under Franco and the monarchy was overthrown, Falla went into exile in Argentina where he died in 1946.

Here’s the wikipedia entry on it. Wiki

Burning Love in Barcelona

If you stood at the bottom of Las Ramblas in Barcelona and looked up toward the foothills, to the right lay the working class and artisanal neighborhood, where our pension sat, and to the right you had the poorer sailors’ quarter. The farther up the Ramblas you walked inland from the port, the neighborhoods became more middle class and prosperous. In 1977, my two fellow hitchhikers, Chris and Inge, and I made two excursions to the maritime quarter–once to visit a Romanesque church during the day, and the next time to visit a Flamenco club that same night. When we visited the latter, we were swindled and nearly got shot.

Our trip to the church took us down even more winding and narrower streets than in our own quarter. The farther we walked the air became cooler and the noise of the Ramblas died out. The buildings seemed to take on a Moorish feel– geometric tiles decorated the white stucco walls. Some of the apartments had wonderful door-sized gates made of hammered iron, wrought into intricate curlicue patterns.  It began to rain.

We finally found the church, which sat in a small plaza. It had the thin narrow windows with half round tops that typify the Romanesque style. I don’t remember much about the inside, but I immediately fell in love with the cloisters. It was only about 20 feet across but the columns showed off exquisite workmanship. Some were carved into elegant twisted rope designs and other had bits of glass and stone set into them. For some reason, certain buildings or places resonate with me and make me feel as if they give off a kind of mystical or spiritual emanation. Perhaps the rain had something to do with it. The stones of the unkempt interior courtyard were overgrown with grass and it looked vaguely tropical with a small palmetto and a few papyrus plants potted in a small pool. There were no modern sounds, no lights, no air conditioning and it as if this scene had not changed for over a thousand years.

Somehow when we left the church, we became disoriented and found ourselves quite lost in the maze of streets. The more we walked, the farther we seemed to get away from modern Barcelona and again I had the sense of going back in time. At one point we turned a corner and found ourselves at the top of a long, narrow, dirt street. It teemed with people, so we started walking down it, thinking it must lead to Las Ramblas.

Something soon began to look odd about the street. First off, the people on the narrow sidewalks turned out to be for the most part middle-aged men. So too it seemed that mostly men made up the people standing in the middle of the street, though they were younger, and some looked like sailors. Next the windows of the shops along the street held a strange type of ware-things like hot water bottles, long rubber tubes, and what looked like huge rubber syringes or turkey-basters. The men on the side of the street would call to those walking along. Sometimes a younger man would walk over, they would exchange a few words, and the two would then disappear into the entrance or up an exterior stairway. It took a while, but finally the penny dropped–we had wondered into a street full of bordellos. This street, however, had none of the glamour of the red light districts you read about in Amsterdam. The whole place seemed like something out of a Fellini movie, and if a grotesquely huge woman had emerged dressed in a bearskin, I would not have shown the least surprise. No one approached us as we hurried down the street and found our way back to our pension.

I wish I could say that was the most traumatic experience we had in Barcelona, but it wasn’t. But that is for another day.

Isaac Albeniz. Suite Espagnole

Keeping on my last post’s subject of Albinez, I have chosen his Suite Espagnole today. Albinez originally wrote this in 1886 as a set of three pieces each with the name of a Spanish province. His publisher added eight more pieces after the composer’s death from a much later opus number, and so the entire suite paints sound portraits of 11 regions. Albinez quite deftly wove the Spanish folk melodies into quite sumptuous and evocative works. One of them is called “Catalonia.” (Barcelona was the capital of Catalonia in the heart of Basque territory.)

This piece takes me back to my first visit to Barcelon in 1977, where I hitchhiked with two friends. I think back to the tall plane trees that lined Las Ramblas, the main boulevard that bisects Barcelona on its way down from the hills to the port. I seem to remember my guidebook likening Las Ramblas to the Champs-Elysees in Paris. The comparison was weak–in 1977 when I was there, Spain was just awakening from the economically depressed decades under fascism, and there were no Cartier, Bulgari, or Gucci boutiques around. But the Ramblas had something going for it that the Champs-Elysees would never have–it was designed for people and not traffic. The wide, raised pedestrian walkway ran through the middle of the street and the single lanes of traffic ran along its edge. This created what was effectively the longest plaza in the world. On this vast playground sat benches, newsagents, and small cafés. Pigeons and people strutted, sat, did little courtship dances or just sunned themselves in the clear green light that filtered down through the leaves of the plane trees.

The Ramblas had a nice feel to it, and business seemed to be picking up, though the people still looked a bit threadbare. Cinemas advertised the old-fashioned way–they commissioned local sign painters to build portable placards that they could bring in at night. I believe some version of Jaws had just come out and the sign in front of one of these theatres had been cut into the shape of a huge shark and painted in lurid colors–the long sharp teeth dripping with crimson blood.

I never told my parents this, but I almost got killed on the Ramblas. Since Franco had died just the year before, people were finally starting to demand more and more freedoms. Every day the papers carried stories of bombings by Basque separatists.

One day as I was exploring the city by myself investigating an old church near the port, I thought a nice drink at a café on the Ramblas would do me just fine. I emerged onto the Ramblas very near a subway station. I had a strange sensation and noticed that it was dead quiet. I looked to my right. A crowd of protestors stood glaring in my direction. I looked to the left. A crowd of riot police, swaddled in riot gear and bulletproof vests and armed with carbines and tear gas launchers glared back. I stood right in the middle. A few of the police were looking down into the mouth of the subway. Shards of glass lay on the pavement. The cops decided to run down the steps. As soon as they started, the protestors began to jeer at them. Immediately, the police rushed out guns drawn. I heard a “pop”; the police had started firing and canisters of tear gas arced through the air toward the protestors who had already begun to throw rocks. I did not stick around to find out who won.

I would like to say that was the only time I was concerned about my personal safety in Barcelona, but it wasn’t. However, I don’t want to imply that it was a scary or dangerous city. Over the next few days, I will let you decide.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is 100 years old.

Read the Guardian Article about the fact that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is 100 years old.

It’s still revolutionary in my books. Read my earlier post on it:

Rodrigo’s Berceuse de Printemps

Pandora just played this again. Sumptuous!

Kurt Nemes' Classical Music Almanac

Every once in a while,  you hear a piece that stops you dead in your tracks.  This just happened while I was eating dinner and Pandora was streaming works on my “Gymnopedies for Piano” channel.

Now recently Pandora seemed to have lost its edge and sold out to advertisement.  Sometimes in the midst listening to a stream that was clearly in one genre, I’d be jolted by a song that was from a completely different one.  It took me a while to figure out that it was because my daughter and I shared the same Pandora account and she’d add channels of hip-hop, rap, and other artists.  So I created a new account and got back to my uninterrupted, sedate works.  Then I noticed that sometimes, in a stream, Pandora would eventually end up playing the same works over and over.  So that’s why it surprised me today when it…

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Isaac Albeniz. Iberia Suite

Albeniz spent the last years of his life traveling and teaching between Barcelona, Nice and Paris. It was the culmination of a strange life. He had started out as a prodigy, learning the rudiments of piano at the age of one and giving his first performance at the age of four. His father first commercially exploited him but then took him to study in Paris with the teacher of Debussy and Bizet. He eventually ran away and supported himself by playing the piano, dressed as a musketeer–backwards! That is, he would stand with his back to the piano and play with the backs of his fingers.

When he was twelve, he stowed away on a ship bound for Buenos Aires and then eventually made his way (supporting himself playing piano in vaudeville) to Cuba, the United States, San Francisco before returning to Europe. There he performed in London, Liverpool and Leipzig. When he was 15 (15!) he decided to take music more seriously and though he couldn’t sit still long enough to study, he did meet and come under the influence stylistically of Dukas, Lizst and d’Indy. Eventually he met another composer and musicologist, Felipe Pedrell who exposed Albeniz to the complexity and richness of folk music, and that spurred him on to becoming a composer. He stuck with the piano most of his life though he did make a financial arrangement with a rich wannabe librettist (an English banker) to write music for his terrible operas. His piano music was considered extremely complex for the time and he seemed to have picked up the Impressionist tendency for color.

The Iberia Suite is probably the composer’s best known piece. It consists of twelve portraits of Spain which are rich and lush and evoke the feel of the land and its people. Leopold Stokowski orchestrated a number of the pieces in Iberia after the composer’s death. The most well known is called “Triana,” arraged here for orchestra.

My Iberian Adventure

I chose Albeniz’s music to accompany my story about my hitch-hiking adventure to Barcelona in March of 1977, to which I return today. As you might remember, three of us–Ingeborg, Chris, and I–had thumbed our way down from Paris and arrived a few days before Palm Sunday.  Inge, being a wealthy German whose currency was very strong in those days, found herself a room in a hotel. Chris and I settled for the more modest alternative–a pension near the train station. We would explore the city on our own in the mornings, rendezvous for lunch or dinner, and swap stories of what we had discovered.

The three of us were quickly taken by the charm of the city, which derived more from its homogeneity than its cosmopolitanism. Since Franco had only died the year before, Barcelona was slowly awakening from a long slumber, like a sleeping beauty, which had preserved it in a state that must have resembled that of pre-war Spain.

The pension where Chris and I stayed sat on one street of the narrow maze that comprised the oldest part of the city, which lay near the port. In the center of this quarter sat an old 13th century (if my memory serves me correctly) cathedral. It was huge and had delicate soaring vaulted arches to rival those of Chartres. The church, however, was empty, a legacy of the anti-church sentiments of the communists who turned churches into stables and barracks during the Spanish Civil War, which they lost. The stones back then were worn and honey-colored and shafts of brilliantly colored light filtered down from the stained glass windows and lay in splotches on the floor.

Near the church stood a small bar that Inge had found and where we used to meet in the afternoon. She liked it because a group of young students and poets hung out there whom she eventually befriended. On our first visit there she pointed out the group who sat at a table in the corner window. She motioned to the young man who sat at the head of the table–he was a slight dark Spaniard, who parted his hair in the middle and wore the brocaded vest and tight black trousers of a matador. “Manoleto” I remember hearing someone say, (or perhaps I just thought it) when we saw him, and instantly I thought back to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

I liked the little bar because, like all the bars we found in Barcelona, it was dead cheap. You could get an almost full tumbler of Campari and ice for about 50 cents. They would plop down a large glass bottle of seltzer, wrapped in a metal cage to keep it from exploding. They also served a type of tapas that consisted of pickled vegetables and fish over which the barrista would dump about a quarter cup of hot sauce. In the mornings we would go along for breakfast which consisted of some sweet roll accompanied by a café con leche. They take a tall thick glass, add about a third of a cup of sweetened condensed milk and then fill it the rest of the way with espresso.

This part of the city pleased me a lot–it was very lower working class, though most of the people were probably descended from the sailors and longshoreman since we were so near the port. It had a bit of seediness to it–we’d see the occasional used hypodermic lying about, but I never felt threatened there. After roaming the streets we found a wonderful little worker’s restaurant where you could eat hearty food and quaff wine for a pittance. I remember ordering a plate of lamb kidneys and onions and vino tinto. The wine came in little glass flasks, which had a spout on the side. You drank it by holding your thumb over the hole in the top, tilting your head back, opening your mouth, and then removing your thumb. A thin jet of wine would then arc across the ether and, if your aim was good, land on your tongue. Each meal ended with a huge Valencia orange whose thick pith had its own pleasing flavor. Once I made the mistake of going to the bathroom in the restaurant and fortunately only had to micturate–next to the commode the proprietor had stuck a number of small pieces of pages from magazines, neatly torn into rectangles, over the sharpened end of a bent coat hanger. This was the toilet paper.

Surprisingly, this quarter housed two artistic Meccas–the Galerie Maeght, and the Picasso Museum. The Maeght Foundation had made its money on all the big artists of the century–Picasso, Miro, Calder, Dali, etc.–and their gallery was filled with works of these artists. Picasso had spent his first 14 years in Barcelona, I believe, living in this neighborhood. The Picasso museum, located in an old 16th or 17th century palazzo, therefore mostly housed the artist’s early works. Inside, crystal chandeliers hung from gilded, coffered ceilings. This contrasted with the paintings themselves, which took my breath away. Here were sketches and oils that demonstrated how Picasso, by his early teens, had developed his technique to rival that of El Greco, Caravaggio, Reubens and Rembrant.

Once he had mastered his medium, he then turned his eye from the traditional religious and aristocratic subjects and directed it on the life of the workers and peasants of the streets of Barcelona. One picture focused on a bar fight he witnessed between two campesinos who had come to town and gotten drunk. Picasso had caught the emotion and blur of arms in a masterful way that reminded me of Goya. Seeing a man killed at such a young age must have had an impact on the boy-artist.

Being in Barcelona had a profound impact on me as well (or so I’m discovering as the sights and sounds come back to me after 36 years). Chris and I were a bit confused at Inge’s behavior. I had thought she was sleeping with him but then she did not invite him to stay with her in her hotel and she would only meet up with us during certain parts of the day. One day she announced that she had booked passage on a ferry to Majorca, which was to leave in few days.

During the days, Chris and I roamed the streets and he would fill me in on the latest trends in pop culture. One day we stopped in a bar for a drink after plodding through the hot dusty streets. Every bar at that time had a televison, since most people couldn’t afford their own, and that was how they drew in clientele. On the tube that day was some horribly-produced variety show in black and white with a plump, peroxided tart in a sequined dress belting out a pop song. Chris went over to the juke box and started looking at the songs.

I ordered two drinks and then heard Chris shouting: “Patti Smith! Patti Smith! Look they have Horses on this juke box! I can’t believe it.” I had heard of Patti Smith about two years before–she was a kind of poet/rock and roll artist who worshipped Arthur Rimbaud, but I had never listened to her music. Chris put his money in the slot, punched the numbers, and the music that came out was like none I had ever heard. The words told an odd story about a boy who gets raped in front of his high school locker and sees a vision of horses thundering along a beach. “Things are different in California” I remember thinking to myself.

Chris was good company. We went to the local bullfighting arena (it was off season) and took a tour of the museum. It had a bust of Manoleto and I posed Chris and the old guard in front of it. Sometimes we found ourselves in our pension reading in the evenings. It had a nice collection of books left by travelers. I found a copy of two plays by Arthur Miller–“View from a Bridge” and “The Crucible”–in French! I devoured these and savored this tri-cultural moment and the fact that a boy from rural Indiana had come so far.

Baudelaire on Wagner

I love Wagner, but the music I prefer is that of a cat hung up by its tail outside a window and trying to stick to the panes of glass with its claws.

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