Johann Sebastian Bach: Sinfonia to Cantata No. 29

Last post, I wrote about Wendy Carlos, who in 1967 released the record “Switched-On Bach,” and her contribution to electronic music. She also helped give old Johann Sebastian Bach’s career a shot in the arm as well. When I did a search on the name “Bach” on Amazon’s website, I ended up with over 25,000 recordings. I once read that Bach, Beethoven and Mozart are the hottest selling classical composers these days, which indicates great staying power as Ludwig has been dead over 181, Wolfgang 222, and Johann 263 years respectively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johann Sebastian Bach: Two Part Invention in D Minor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a piece by Hyman called “The Minotaur.”

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

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

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

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

Vitreous Bach

My entry on this piece consistently gets more hits from search engines than any other. More than the 1812 Overture. Here’s an interesting take on it. Some people can’t listen to the Glass Harmonica; it affects them like fingernails on a chalkboard. If that’s you, run.

Choice of Neurosis

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Richard Strauss: Thus Spake Zarathustra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“the late young keep young long.”

and on music:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joaquin Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joaquin Rodrigo was born in 1901. At the age of three, a measles outbreak in Spain blinded him. Despite this disability, he went on to be an accomplished pianist and then studied composition with Paul Dukas (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) in Paris. In the “City of Lights” he became friends with Ravel, Milhaud, Honegger and Manuel de Falla. He stayed there for five years before returning to Spain in 1933. From then until his death he traveled lecturing and performing (piano). He live in Madrid until the ripe old age of 97.

Rodrigo composed the Concierto de Aranjuez in 1939 and it became an instant success. Oddly enough, he did not play the guitar. He composed on the piano and his wife transcribed the piece for guitar. He wrote 11 concertos for different instruments, but in the US he’s known primarily for the Concierto de Aranjuez and another work, Fantasia Para un Gentilhombre. Rodrigo said the first movement was inpired by their visit to the gardens of the 16th Century Palace of King Philip I of Spain in the city of Aranjuez. His wife later wrote that the emotive second movement was the composers response to the miscarriage of their first child.

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

By the way, here’s the kitchy commercial with Ricardo Montalban:

Giuseppe Verdi: “Triumphal March from Aida”

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It still astounds me to realize how many pieces of classical music have been used to flog products. While searching through music news groups recently, somebody asked the question, “Do you know which piece of music is used in the Buick Century commercial?” Someone answered almost instantly: “Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole.5th movt.”

Psychological research on memory and learning tells us that people remember better when we involve more than one of the senses while learning something new. The theory states that you thereby “hang” the memory on more than one hook and that makes it easier to find for later retrieval. Thus, it would make sense to light a stick of incense, put on some great music, and sit in a comfy chair while studying for a test. School systems systematically ignore these findings and school kids today still sit in stony silence, wedged in chairs/desks that make the Iron Maiden seem like a Lazy Boy recliner.

The Portuguese Mateus Wine Company used the “Triumphal March” from Aida in the early 1970s to sell class. Mateus sold a rose wine in a bottle that looked like it was made of terra cotta, and the white was packaged to look like a bottle of Armagnac.

The commercial gives you, the viewer, the point of view of a middle-class couple opening the door to receive guest for a party. The music starts as the door opens out to reveal a ridiculously long arrow-straight sidewalk up to the front of the house (this is the suburbs, right?) Another couple walks toward the camera carrying a bottle of Mateus and present it to the hosts when they arrive at the door.

It’s quite a clever how Mateus uses the music to convey as sense of dignity to what probably turned out to be a 1970s wife-swapping party. In short they were selling a dream–that this crass, materialistic, anti-intellectual couple had class. No matter that alcoholism claims more lives and has shattered more homes than all the “illegal” drugs combined. Image is everything, after all. And alcohol is legal. As an adolescent, I loved the commercial. Later, as a college student, I followed its message and abused alcohol almost every chance I got. So it was quite an effective campaign, if you ask me.

In high school, my friends the M* family told me the source of the music. I dutifully trundled down to the library and checked out Aida and eventually went on to purchase it. It proved quite valuable later on when I went to college. My second year I transferred to a huge university (student population circa 33,000) that actually had high-rise dorms. My tower sat opposite another tower, which was our rival. Some nights, people in one dorm would throw open their windows and start shouting at the other dorm. This would escalate on both sides until almost everyone was involved. After about an hour of this, I would open my window, put the speakers of my stereo on the ledge and crank up the “Triumphal March.” Eventually the shouting would stop.

I used to flatter myself that playing this piece caused the end of these little outbreaks. In all honesty, though, the people probably just got bored (or hoarse) from all that yelling at each other and just stopped. Still, I like to think that I had a hand in bringing culture to my fellow drunks.

Frederic Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in b-flat minor

When I started this blog, my original goal was to write about a different piece of classical music every day.   I really had no idea where it would end up taking me, or whether I could actually come up with 365 pieces of music, let alone something interesting to say about each one.   It started out as a way of forcing me to write every day, which is–I’m told–the one thing that successful writers have in common. At first, it was scary, but wonderful things have started happening to me.

First and foremost, this project has renewed my interest in classical music and made me see just how rich and limitless it is. For the most part, I have just written about the mood of the piece, but one could spend years comparing different performances, performers, and even the types of instruments (authentic versus modern) on which the music is played. This is to say nothing of the intellectual challenge of actually studying each piece from a musical perspective. So far, I’ve just touched on a handful of pieces by a small number of composers. Consider the all pieces that a composer might have written during his or her lifetime! (Vivaldi: 40 operas and 70 concertos, for example.) So much music, so little time!

Next, writing about the pieces has turned into as much autobiography as journalism. Writing about a piece makes me remember when and where I was on first hearing it and makes many of those memories come alive again for me. The French novelist, Marcel Proust, bit into a small French cake, called a madeleine, which reminded him of an event from his childhood. He spent the rest of his life reliving it in his multi-volume epic, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Obviously, I don’t compare myself to him, but this has been a liberating exercise for me.

In addition, along with the memories of music come memories of so many people–friends & family; famous & obscure; helpful & and hurtful; friendly and unfriendly; good & bad; loving and nurturing. After I graduated from college, I left my hometown of Mishawaka, Indiana and set out to see the world, for the most part turning my back on all of them. Now, nearly 40  years later, I find myself regretting that, but also discover anew, just how forgiving people can be. My sister, who lives 2000 miles away, visited the site and shared some of her own remembrances and gave me encouragement.

Finally, there is the satisfaction of re-discovering each piece itself. I started out by sitting down with a tablet of paper and just brainstorming names of composers. Then I listed their works that readily sprang to mind. After a few minutes I had about 75 pieces. Over the next few days, pieces just began popping into my head. Now the list has grown to 200 works. When I sit down to write the first draft of each entry, I just look at the name of the piece, and I hear some part of it in my mind. That starts the associations and the piece almost writes itself. On weekends, I try to listen to the pieces again, and I often realize I’ve forgotten some other part of the work and it’s wonderful to hear it again. It’s almost like hearing it for the first time again.

Chopin wrote this sonata while staying at the summer residence at Nohant, with his lover, the female French writer, George Sand. The version I have–on London performed by Wilhelm Kempff–gives it the subtitle, “The Funeral March,” because he had written the third movement two years before the rest of the sonata for a funeral. You will know the tune if you have ever seen a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which a character pretends to be dead or thinks he is dead. It is dark and brooding, and I used to listen to it a lot back in a depressive period while a college student.

Why would one of the most successful composers of the day (first half of the 19th century) write such a glum piece? Chopin was only 29 at the time, but since he suffered from consumption (which most artists around this time seemed die from) death obviously was always looking over his shoulder. In fact, he died from the disease at 39, but he left a large number of works for piano–27 etudes, 52 mazurkas, 19 nocturnes, and 13 polonaises, 25 preludes as well as three sonatasand two concertos.

I had put off listening to this piece until today. Proabably fearing the depressive tone of the third movement. It surprised me then hearing that the first, second, and fourth movements are quite different in style–one romantic, the second fast, and the last kind of like someone being chased by the devil. Well, we all are, and thank god for those who’ve managed to capture that uniquely human awareness and channel it into divine works of art.

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