Giuseppe Verdi: Il Trovatore

Hooray for libraries! Had I grown up in France, where they didn’t have lending libraries until about 30 years ago, I probably would only have discovered half the classical pieces I love. My small hometown public library in Mishawaka, Indiana (pop. 33,000 circa 1972) had quite a respectable collection of classical albums. Whenever I heard a new piece on the local classical music station, I’d write the name down and pay a visit to the library to check it out.

In the olden days, when you checked records out from the library often they were in less than pristine condition. Back then most everybody had these huge old console stereos with tone arms that weighted about 12 pounds. True, when hi-fis were in vogue, the records were made of pretty strong plastic. When the next generation of stereos hit, with feather-weight arms that held magnetic, not ceramic, cartridges, record labels started to scrimp on the plastic and then things became really bad. You’d check out one of these flimsy records and it would sound like a hail storm. I swear you could hold these disks up to the light and see through them from where the old steel styli had worn through them. Okay, so I’m exaggerating a bit. Only Deutsche Grammophon continued to use high-quality, thick plastic right up to the end. These were the Mercedes of LPs.

When CDs arrived on the scene, they were a big improvement. True, if you abused a CD it might end up skipping about a 1000 times a second, so that Brahms ends up sounding like it’s performed by a Rap group. But a problem with checking out CDs from the library is that the staff aren’t diligent about finding people who do not return them with the liner notes and booklets. Often, therefore, you don’t even know what the names of the tracks are if they aren’t printed on the disk itself. Of course, even more annoying are record labels that scrimp on the booklet, which are often pathetic advertisements for other records on the label. They don’t have any meaningful text in them or description of the music in them.

Again, in the era of LPs, you could actually learn something from the liner notes. True sometimes these were written by pompous gas bags, but most of the time they included some biographical information or anecdote about the composer or the orchestra or even interesting facts about the piece itself. Sometimes, they actually hired someone who understood music theory to explain the piece. Not being a music major, a lot of this information–about keys, chord progression, etc.–went over my head, but it was nice to know it was there anyway. And I’m sure some people understood it.

Rock albums on CDs also have been hit by this cost-saving measure, or else record companies just spend their money on artsy advertising. That’s not such a loss, as rock critics/journalists sometimes can’t string two sentences together, or they gush in flowery or gonzo-type prose, which is really ghastly. For example, here is an excerpt from a recent album review I found in Rolling Stone:

The whole album thumps like the soundtrack to a lost Eddie and the Cruisers sequel, one where Eddie gets crucified by Roman soldiers, while Gaga stands under the cross weeping and sending dirty texts to the DJ..

Which brings us back to today’s piece. One of the albums I used to check out from my hometown library was Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Il Travatore (The Trubador). As in the case of many pieces during this period, I was drawn to it for a particularly rousing section that had been used in some film or commercial. This was the “Anvil Chorus.” It appears in Act II, scene one, in which a band of gypsies sing a chorus about a beautiful gypsy maid while bashing away on their anvils. The sound of crashing metal worked into a classical piece excited the little boy in me, no doubt. That leads into a soprano solo, in which the gypsy woman, Azucena, sings an ominous aria.

One time a friend of mine and I went to see a revival of the Marx Brothers’ film, A Night at the Opera. In one part, Harpo is chased onstage during a performance of an opera, which turns out to be Il Travatore. He dresses in the costume of a gypsy woman, and when Azucena starts to sing, he rises up next to her an makes his trade mark ugly face, the “Gookie.”

This of course has nothing to do with the opera, but I found it hilarious, and it only served to make me appreciate the piece more. (Not to mention how intellectual comedies used to be.)

I include a link here to the plot of Il Trovatore. It involves the rivalry between a Count and a gypsy Troubador. The Count has sworn to revenge the death of his infant brother, who supposedly was burnt to death by the gypsies in a vendetta. Only today have I read the synopsis, and I am surprised to find out how complex and powerful is the story line. You’d never guess listening to the “Anvil Chorus.” But it turns out to be almost as moving as Romeo and Juliet with an evil character on a par with Iago in Othello.

Thirty-nine years ago, when I discovered Il Travatore at the local library, I would have laughed at the plot. It’s too melodramatic. How many people burn babies and kill to revenge themselves of events that happened generations previously? Since then, however, we’ve seen continued fighting between Jews and Arabs; Iraqis and Iranians; Serbs, Croatians, and Muslims; and countless other toil, strife and genocide, the roots of which go back for centuries. The plot of Il Travatore, unfortunately, seems much more plausible and contemporary to me now than it did all those years ago.

Ludwig Van Beethoven: Symphony Number 9 in D Minor, Fourth Movement

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is probably one of the most recognizable piece of music.

The music world had never seen anything like the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. It starts out with a strong statement followed by a complex interplay of different melodies heard throughout the symphony. The basses ominously play a melody that will be sung later to the words “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” (O friends, let’s stop our moaning). Beethoven introduces a second major theme, also sung later in the movement, “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” (Joy! Bright spark of divinity!), and he goes back and forth between them. Once again, a melody from the second movement bubbles up on the flutes and oboes to sort of break the tension. Eventually, it quietens down, but then after a tiny pause, the full orchestra restates the opening theme again at the end of which, the baritone sings the melody, and this begins the incredible choral section.

The text for this part comes from Schiller’s Ode to Joy. The baritone exhorts us all to sing more joyful songs, full of joy. He then launches into the first stanza, which describes joy and its magic power to unite all men. On the second stanza, the sopranos join the baritone to sing about friendship and a loving wife. For the third stanza, the tenor and sopranos sing about how we all nurse the joy from nature’s breast and even the lowly worm can feel contentment. The choir repeats the last four lines of each stanza after the soloists. This part is quite rousing, and when it ends you think “Gee, that was a good finish.” But then the drums, cymbals and flutes start wonderful march upbeat march, which the tenor joins to call all brothers to lead the heavenly life of a hero. There follows a quick orchestral interlude, which ends with the choir joining in and singing the entire first verse again. If it ended there, you would say “Wow, that was really great.” But it’s still not over.

Next the basses in the choir starts the last stanza of the poem and the melody goes back and forth between them and the sopranos. From this it moves onto a number of solos, duets, trios and quartets for the voices. Some are serious; some are joyous. In this stanza, Joy addresses the multitudes and tells us to recognize our creator in heaven and to fall down to worship him. At the end of these duets, the strings start in sounding like the beginning of rain, and it rapidly builds to the grand finale with the full orchestra and the choirs singing snatches from the first stanza again. It slows for a bit, but then speeds up and ends with a great clash of cymbals and drums.

It really is quite an extraordinary piece. A whole symphony in one movement. You can’t really touch it with anything.

Nothing compares with it since then. It is glorious music, full of passion, joy and hope for mankind.
Consider for a moment that Beethoven wrote this when he was stone deaf. There are people who can play chess without a board. That is, they can just sit together and call out the moves to each other and visualize the whole game in their mind. Imagine composing a whole symphony in your head though. And without being able to sit at a piano and plunk out the chords to see how it sounds. That is pure genius.

I first heard the second movement to the Ninth on the same soundtrack that I wrote about in my previous post, namely A Clockwork Orange. I can’t remember when they used it in the movie—probably in some pointlessly violent scene. Had they not used it there, I probably would have heard it sooner or later. It’s now nearly forty years after the film was released and few people—outside of film majors—remember it anymore. But it’s been nearly 200 years since Beethoven died, and I don’t see any signs of Beethoven: Symphony Number 9 losing popularity.

Coda

I just read something about Anthony Burgess, author of the novel, “A Clockwork Orange.”  He wrote the novel in 3 weeks and it considered a response to a horrible event that happened in his own life.  This from Wikipedia:  “Burgess claimed that the novel’s inspiration was his wife Lynne’s beating by a gang of drunk American servicemen stationed in England during World War II. She subsequently miscarried.” More interesting, though, was that in the original novel written after Burgess returned to England from a stint in the Far East as a language teacher, there was a 21st chapter in which the main character, sees the error of his ways and repents.  This chapter was dropped at the insistence of Burgess’ US publisher, who thought the darker ending which leaves the protagonist vindicated, was more acceptable to American audiences.  Kubrick filmed it that way and Burgess thought the film was flawed for that reason.

Henry Purcell: Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary

In 1972, Stanley Kubrick released his film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ book, A Clockwork Orange. It was hyped as a stylized, post-apocalyptic tour de force, and I believe Life magazine did a spread on it. It was immediately given an X-rating for its violence and sex, and that meant as a 17 year-old, I could not go to see it. This was frustrating, because many of my swim teammates were old enough to go and came back to tell us it was great. They even started using the slang used in the film and acting like the toughs and thugs, who were the protagonists of the movie. So since I could not see the film, I got a copy of the book and bought the sound track. The composer, Robert Carlos, had done the music for the film.

Carlos had achieved success for performing Bach’s music on Moog synthesizers on his album Switched-on Bach. Since the book was about a young thug with no redeeming social value except that he listened to Beethoven, every other track on the album was classical interspersed with Carlos’ own compositions. I thought it was absoultely fantastic, despite Carlos having altered a number of the classical pieces by pumping them through synthesizers.

One of the “altered” classical works (well, baroque, really) on the album was by Henry Purcell: Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, which is used to set the dark, brooding tone at the outset of the film. The Purcell piece was used in March of 1695 for the funeral of Queen Mary II, and it was played again for Purcell’s own funeral in November of the same year. It has five short movement and repeats the march at the beginning and the end. There are two anthems—choral pieces—which sing about man’s short time on earth, and asking god to be merciful. In the middle is a thoughtful baroque trumpet canzona. The piece that Carlos used A Clockwork Orange is the march.

Here is the altered version and clip from the film:

Carlos also used it twice in the soundtrack. The first time, the synthesized version at the beginning, and then to close the album in an arrangement for electronic harpsichord, which sounds almost like a music box. The original march is scored for trumpets and timpani, and you can imagine a catafalque bringing the bier of the Queen into Westminster Abbey. Quite affecting.

Now Burgess’ book and the film of A Clockwork Orange, on the other hand, disturbed me when I actually got to see it. This despite the fact that, in 1972 when it was released, I and all my friends on the swim team loved it. We identified closely with the gang of thugs on the screen, because we were the outcasts and underdogs among the athletes at our high school. On weekends we’d drink beer and smash people’s mail boxes, and drive across the yards of people with didn’t like. We never approached the level of violence depicted on the film—gang fights, rapes, murder and robbery—but we did think of ourselves as a kind of brotherhood of vandals. It was teenage angst channeled into aggressive behavior, and A Clockwork Orange fed this fire.

To show what getting old does, this morning I was trying to think of a redeeming value to A Clockwork Orange, both book and movie. It’s supposed to be about the oppression of the individual in a fascist society, I think. But does anyone care for this particular individual, Alex? Alex and his gang get tanked up on hallucinogens, rape a woman to the music of Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra,” rapes and kills another woman in front of her husband, who is a writer. Later Alex is caught and the authorities deprogram or brain-wash him by giving him a drug that makes him violently nauseous while showing him images of Nazi death camps and playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. After Alex is rehabilitated, his old friend beat him up and leave him for dead in front of the writer’s house. When the writer discovers who he is he tries to kill Alex by locking him in a room and playing Beethoven’s music to him. In the end, Alex is made a hero by the state because the writer was a member of the opposition party, I think.

I don’t think it makes a very good case for the evil of fascism. The state is not put on the stage that much. What A Clockwork Orange does emphasize is the glory of youthful violence as a reaction against an oppressive society. And though it showed how evil it was to use music to brainwash Alex, the filmmakers used music as a background to mindless violence as well. The difference is lost on me–now a middle aged man.

If the film had a message, it also was obviously lost on me and my friends, who weren’t stupid—one went on to study the classics at the University of Chicago and became a jesuit. We just loved the violence. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, eh?

About 10 years ago, I lead a high school youth group. When they said horrible, disrespectful or cheeky things, I had to remember that I was once like that. I also had to listen to see if there is any pain behind their acting out. One day, one of the most obstreperous ones in the class shared that his father had tried to teach him to swim by taking him out in the middle of a lake and dropping him overboard. It doesn’t take a fascist state to remove the dignity of a person. About 20 years after A Clockwork Orange came out, I stumbled across a recording of Purcell’sMusic for the Funeral of Queen Mary. It is a short, sweet, sad and spare work. Fitting for a funeral and for a look back on one’s impetuous youth.

Coda

I just read something about Anthony Burgess, author of the novel, “A Clockwork Orange.”  He wrote the novel in 3 weeks and it considered a response to a horrible event that happened in his own life.  This from Wikipedia:  “Burgess claimed that the novel’s inspiration was his wife Lynne’s beating by a gang of drunk American servicemen stationed in England during World War II. She subsequently miscarried.” More interesting, though, was that in the original novel written after Burgess returned to England from a stint in the Far East as a language teacher, there was a 21st chapter in which the main character, sees the error of his ways and repents.  This chapter was dropped at the insistence of Burgess’ US publisher, who thought the darker ending which leaves the protagonist vindicated, was more acceptable to American audiences.  Kubrick filmed it that way and Burgess thought the film was flawed for that reason.

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Happy Summer: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Presto Movement (Kitch Heavy Metal Version)

Grofé: Grand Canyon Suite

When compiling the list of pieces I used to listen to as a child, some subconscious part of me made me leave out The Grand Canyon Suite. “It’s not serious, or classical music,” I heard a voice inside saying. As a child, however, I often played the recording of it that belonged to my older brother, Bob, on the days when I’d sneak into his room.

The Grand Canyon Suite is a highly imagistic piece of music. Grofe tried to capture the majesty of the striated canyon as the light gradually reveals the dazzling colors at sunrise. In another section, he imitates the clopping of donkey hooves transporting tourists down into the canyon floor. Grofe then shamelessly uses the violins to imitate the bray of the asses as they lose their grip and then grind to a stubborn halt. You know how it goes, every filmmaker has used that technique in every documentary and cowboy western film. Still, I wonder, what lies behind my ignoring the piece.

Looking Grofe up in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, I find an entry for the composer. Well, if the musical Dons at Oxford thought him serious enough to include in their book, why should I turn my nose up at him? Also, while researching this piece, I learned that he was quite an accomplished musician, having orchestrated Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Grofe’s entry also says Grofe wrote The Grand Canyon Suite in 1931, which means he probably wasn’t the first composers to imitate animals. Let’s see: I think, Saint-Saens has braying assess in Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev, born just one year before Grofe, imitated a wolf, a duck, and a twittering bird in Peter and the Wolf. All of this occurred in the infant stages of film, and television and Walt Disney’s anthropomorphic animal documentaries were just a twinkling in a cartoonist’s eye. So it’s not really Grofe to blame for making this device hackneyed, it’s TV.

There must be more to my negative associations with this piece than just TV, and while thinking about my last couple entries, the answer suddenly popped out at me. Snobbism and ignorance. I mentioned earlier that the M* family, who influenced me in high school, weren’t really snobby people. Mind you, they could spot bad taste more quickly than anyone I’ve met. Yet, they did not look down their nose at the perpetrators of kitch. They usually just laughed at it or attributed it to greed.

In retrospect my actions become clear: in my desire to be “cultured” and an “intellectual” I divided the world into cultured and non-cultured, and labeled the one “good” and the other “bad.” Though my origin is definitely working class, I put on airs. Why? Why does anyone? To be liked? Respected? Popular? It’s now painfully clear that I drew the wrong conclusions about culture that the M* family exposed me to. What the harm? I guess for me the harm was missing out on quite enjoyable experiences that some people label “popular.”

Fortunately, life always gives you second chances when you make a mistake. While driving home from my daughter’s violin lesson when she was in her teens, the local public radio station played The Grand Canyon Suite. Instead of switching it off, I left it on for her to hear, so she could form her own opinion. I listened as if for the first time, and then I realized this piece was an old friend, and it was still fresh and vibrant for me. So here’s to Ferde Grofe and second chances.

Maria Joao Pires – Le Voyage Magnifique: Schubert Impromptus

Such beautiful music–like water in a brook rippling over stones.

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via Maria Joao Pires – Le Voyage Magnifique: Schubert Impromptus.

The Wurst of P.D.Q. Bach

What wonderfully upliftingly funny stuff.

The Prudent Groove

P.D.Q. Bach CoverThere are days when I hate The Groove. This time sucking, sleep-depriving exercise that began, mainly to explore my record collection (and the limits of my patience), loves to sneak up on me. Just when I think I’ll have a quick post, and then merrily continue on with my day, something interesting pops up and I’m forced to explore it, or live out the rest of my days regretting the time I DIDN’T spend on something worthy of, well, my time. I blame this guilty conscience, and P.D.Q. Bach.

I was going to introduce a “new category” today. I was going to call it Cover Focus, where the subject of the post would, well, focus on an album’s cover (I could have managed another, more creative title, but it was 6:04 in the morning, so, lay off!). I had the cover to The Wurst of P.D.Q. Bach in…

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