Arvo Pärt: Fratres for 12 Cellos

Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer, whose haunting music is inspired by the tintinabulation of bells.

I first heard this piece in the early 1990s, after my daughter Claire was born.  Her mom is a Brit and we met a group of British ex-pats living in Gaithersburg, Maryland when we lived there.  One invited us to a party, where we met a friend of hers, Michael Moore (not the film maker) who was a lobbyist and had gone to Georgetown Law and graduated with Bill Clinton.  Michael introduced me to “Fratres” along with a number of other works by Arvo and John Adams.  I became addicted.  One reviewer has describe the piece as a “mesmerising set of variations on a six-bar theme combining frantic activity and sublime stillness that encapsulates Pärt’s observation that ‘the instant and eternity are struggling within us.

Thinking back to those days, I was reminded of what a snob I was at the time.  Here is why and why I hope I’m not any longer.

The Wizard of Snot

I grew up in a family of sinus-sufferers. We were constantly beset by colds, had never-ending post-nasal drip, and frequent sore throats. Though my mother said my problems were caused by a deviated septum, much later in my life, I realized all our suffering was self-inflicted.

See we were swimmers. When my mom was 40, shortly after I was born, she took swimming lessons and eventually became a lifeguard and swimming instructor. My three brothers and sole sister swam competitively at the local YMCA and then in high school. We spent Friday nights at open swim at the high school. When I was 4 I taught myself to swim, by watching and imitating others. And when I was old enough, my parents made me join the swim team and I swam competitively for the next 12 years.

Now here’s where the masochism comes in. For some reason, we were all allergic to chlorinated water. One drop up the nose would burn like acid, so we had to wear nose clips. Even wearing them, though, we still had burning sinuses that eventually lead to the aforementioned head colds. And that meant we always had copious amounts of phlegm.

The result of this was that on any day you entered our household, you could hear someone hacking, blowing their nose or spitting. Sure we had Kleenexes and even cloth handkerchiefs, but we still spat, even my mother. We’d spit while walking outside onto the ground. We’d spit while taking a shower. We’d roll down the window while driving along the road to spit. Once my sister spit into my face after having an argument with my parents.

We took it for granted as a fact of life and even laughed about it. Once, when we were on a drive one Sunday afternoon, I heard my mother clear her sinuses and we all knew she was preparing to spit. It was so commonplace we didn’t even look up. But when she did spit, we heard her yell, “Oh no.” We looked up. A huge wad of spit was plastered on the inside of the window. She had forgotten to roll it down. My brother Ken and I broke out into howls of laughter from the back seat. And even my father laughed.

Now, there’s something magical about spitting to boys. Projectiles are wonderful, and especially if you can produce them yourself. And on the swim team, we raised spitting to new heights. We had spitting contests. A really effective way to prank someone would be to spit into his locker. In high school, the pranks became even more vicious and the best prank of all would be to wait at the end of the pool when doing laps and when a teammate, of course smaller than you, would finish and come up for air, you’d plant a lung-er right in his face.

Now this might make you think that my high school swim team was a bunch of ne’er do wells. But in fact, my swim team had two of the smartest kids in our school. They were brothers, Paul and Mark. Their mother taught English and their father had studied at the University of Chicago. We’d go to their house on the weekend and the parents would be listening to classical music and reading the New Yorker. It was a whole new world I’d never known. Paul and Mark had three sisters, who were as smart as they, and I fell in love with all of them.

Once in the locker room after a really good spit fight after swim team practice, in a feat of braggadocio to impress Paul, I told the story about the time my mother had spit on the car window. I was almost in tears laughing so hard as I uttered the punch line:

“…and she had forgotten to roll down the window!”

I looked at Paul thinking he would really be impressed.

He was silent.

“Isn’t that hilarious?”

“I’m just amazed that your mother would think it’s OK to spit out of a car window,” he said and walked away.

Of course, peer acceptance is the most important thing when you’re an adolescent, but Paul’s remark went way beyond fitting in with the swim team. In a split second he had shown me that my entire family and I were low, common, and uneducated.

In that instant, I decided I didn’t want to be like my parents any longer. I wanted to be like Paul and his family. So I devoted myself to becoming an intellectual. I started buying and listening to classical music. I started reading only the classics. I pored over books on art. And I came to disdain my parent and their life style.

My father had dropped out of school in sixth grade and spent his life working in factories. My mother left school before graduating, worked as a maid, then in a factory, and finally as a housewife raising five children. They always planted a garden which kept us fed as my dad was often laid off in summer. I was the youngest of the family, and by the time I got to high school, they were able to take summer vacations and started square dancing. For me, who wanted to be like the Paul and Mark, this drove me nuts.

In college I studied English and then French literature. Then I went on to graduate school to become an ESL teacher. As soon as I graduated, I moved to Europe, where, as Eddie Izzard says, “the culture comes from,” which I truly believed. I returned after two years with a British bride and settled in Maryland, which was about as far away from my parents as I could get.

I got a good job using my brains, not busting my back like my parent had done, and moved to the suburbs. My wife and I raised two beautiful daughters. I kept visits to my parents at a minimum and would cringe when my mother made her weekly call to give me the news about the rest of the family. For some reason, there was a big hole in my life and I became depressed. Eventually I got divorced.

Well, I had arrived all right. I was the intellectual I had always wanted to be, but I was absolutely alone. Some good my life’s ambition had done me.

After foundering about a year, I got settled and feeling better about myself and even started dating again. Eventually, I met the woman whom I would marry. Match.com in case you’re wondering. Perfect match, by the way.

My parents took the divorce hard, of course. They were in their nineties and had been married 64 years. My marriage had only lasted 22.

Shortly after I told them, my mom developed Alzheimer’s. I had to return to my boyhood town to help my brother move my parents out of their house and into an assisted living facility connected to a nursing home.

This required doing for my parents, at their advanced age, the things they had done for me as a kid—driving them to doctor appointments, cleaning up after them, making hard decisions about their finances and living arrangements. I reckon I spent more time with them in the three years after my divorce than I had during my 22 years of marriage.

On many occasions, I found myself in a car with dad, who told story after story that showed how much he had enjoyed his life with my mother and raising us five kids. As he spoke, his stories started to remind me of what a nice childhood we did have. It was almost like those cases you hear of adults who’ve repressed memories of childhood and all of a sudden something triggers them and they come tumbling out.

And here’s what I remembered. My father taking me to an art museum at the local university and then to the big museums in Chicago. My father bringing books home from the library for me to read—The Cat In The Hat being the first. My mother standing at her ironing board on a Saturday afternoon listening to the weekly broadcast of “Live from the Met.” My parents going to night school to get their GEDs because they wanted to better themselves. And finally, my parents relentlessly telling me to study, get good grades and go to college so I wouldn’t end up working in factories as they had done.

So some 35 years after Paul’s remark caused me to turn my back on my parents I realize that what started out as a funny story about snot, had, for most of my adult life turned me into one big, stuck-up snot.

As it turned out, I was not able to ask my mother to forgive me for the way I shunned her before she slipped into that netherworld called Alzheimer’s and died. My dad, loving man that he was, forgave me.

Claudio Monteverdi: Laetatus Sum

In the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia and most of the Mideast had become fantastically wealthy after OPEC came into power and the oil boom, well, exploded.  Suddenly, all the countries wanted to “modernize,” and they figured they needed a western education to do so. With oil revenues, they gave scholarships to their young men to study in the United States. To get into US universities, they had to pass an English proficiency test.  A person I’d met had told me with a master’s degree in ESL you could get a job in Riyad making $60,000 a year and live in a rent free apartment.

After working 10 hours a day in a factory making $4.00 and hour with my useless degree in French literature, 60 grand sounded pretty grand to me.  My alma mater, Indiana University in Bloomington, had a one-year master’s program.   I applied and visited the department, where I met the head of the department, a friendly mustachioed linguistics professor named Harry Gradman.  It turned out Harry had just set up a deal with the Saudi government to bring students to IU to learn English here. Harry offered me full tuition and gave me my first teaching assignment on the spot.  So in the summer, 1978, I returned to Bloomington to begin working on my first master’s.

My students were amazing.  Many of them were middle aged, already had college degrees and some were married.  They were full of life and I immediately took a liking to them.  It must have been reciprocal, for they soon started inviting me to dinners at various students’ apartments. These were great, men-only events, and followed a similar format.  You’d arrived and the first thing you noticed was the smell–the air was thick with the smoke of Marlboros which was mercilessly cut by the exquisite aroma coming from the kitchen made by a pot of  chicken and rice, seasoned with dried lemons, sumac and cinnamon, stewing on the stove.

I don’t remember drinking any alcohol, but a few of the students, sometimes had pot.  I remember once sitting on the couch with a student in a colleague’s class–a long-haired philosophy professor, probably ten years older than me.  We got in a discussion about existentialism, and then moved onto classical music.  He said he loved to get stoned and listen to symphonies because “It feels like the notes are coming out of the speakers and flowing over me like water.  It’s wonderful.”

Eventually, the host would announce that the food was ready.  Everyone would jump to to help spread out newspapers on the floor.  Then someone would bring out a roll of aluminum foil, tear off a few sheet, and then pleat them together and make a large serving platter to put on the paper.  The host would come in carrying the pot of chicken and rice and pour it out onto the aluminum foil.  Shoes off, we’d sit in a circle around the stew and they taught me how to eat with my right hand.  The food was superb (I wish I had some right now).

The youngest of my students, Badr, was thin with clear skin, looking about 18. When I first saw him in class I was a bit surprised because he was so slight.  He did not resemble the Saudis at all.  His accent was so heavy and he was such a novice speaker I sometimes could not understand him.

I didn’t really know squat about english Language pedagogy (or andragogy since they were grown ups).  My method of teaching english was to bring in newspaper articles and have them read them out loud and I’d ask them questions about the content.

One day, I brought in an article about philosophy.  I asked if anyone had heard of existentialism.  The discussion was pretty painful as the article was above their level of English.  Afterwards, Badr came up and said, “You know Sart?” “Who”” I asked. “Sart, John Bol Sart.” I suddenly realized he was saying Jean-Paul Sartre.  “You know who Jean-Paul Sartre is?” “Yes, I read much philosophy.  I want to get my phd in philosophy.”

Badre told me that he was originally from Yemen of Somali origin.  His father was a successful businessman who’d moved to Abu Dhabi in the Emirates, which were seven small Arab states that had formed a country that was even richer than Saudi Arabia.

Badr had a beautiful soul–he was as enamored of learning as I was and we became fast friends. He went on to get his phd in Political Science, moved back to Abu Dhabi, where he is a policy analyst who often writes insightful articles for a major newspaper there.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with today’s piece by Monteverdi, Laetatus Sum, which means “I was glad.”  It come from Psalm 122  and according to Wikipedia, this is the text:

 

  1. I was glad when they said unto me : We will go into the house of the Lord.
  2. Our feet shall stand in thy gates : O Jerusalem.
  3. Jerusalem is built as a city : that is at unity in itself.
  4. For thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord : to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the Lord.
  5. For there is the seat of judgement : even the seat of the house of David.
  6. O pray for the peace of Jerusalem : they shall prosper that love thee.
  7. Peace be within thy walls : and plenteousness within thy palaces.
  8. For my brethren and companions’ sakes : I will wish thee prosperity.
  9. Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good.

 

I discovered it sometime in graduate school at IU in a boxed collection of Monteverdi’s masses called, Selva morale e spirituale.

It is one of the most knee-weakeningly beautiful pieces of music I know. It makes me extremely happy where I hear it, as it did when I first did some 38 years ago.

Alban Berg: Violin concerto

Alban Berg was Arnold Shoenberg’s student along with Anton Webern.  The three of them formed what was known as the Second Viennese School, which blew apart classical music and rejected emotional Romanticism for cold intellectual atonality and serialism.  They sounded like a real bunch of knee slapping guys.

Berg’s music is to me among the most accessible, though I used to love listening to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunnaire because he managed to create non-musical singing.  I remember back in college listening to Berg’s opera, Woyzeck.  It is a stark piece, anti-militaristic and probably anti-religious, in which a barber, driven insane by an experiment a doctor is conducting on him, kills his prostitute wife and then himself (by accident), leaving his child to ride around on his hobby horse saying “hopp, hopp,” unaware of the death of his parents.

Beneath the Youtube video of his Violin Concerto here, there’s a great comment by a listener:  “My dad used to say that Berg’s music is like Schoenberg’s but beautiful.”

And, it is much more accessible than the 12 tonal and serial stuff that Schoenberg and his followers cranked out for the rest of the 20th Century.

Berg had a fixation on the number 23 based on having suffered an asthma attack on the 23 of the month and also his study of the work on biorythms, Wilhelm Fliess.  He died in 1935 at the age of 50 after getting blood poisoning from an insect sting on the back of his neck which went septic.

Webern stayed in Vienna and embraced Nazism.  There are a lot of apologists for him, because of the influence of his music on succeeding generations, who kind of say he was merely caught up in the Zeitgeist of the time and German nationalism.  Whatever.  He was shot at the end of World War II by an American soldier in occupied Austria when he stepped outside during curfew to enjoy a cigar given him by his son in law who was a smuggler.

Schoenberg moved to the United States in 1933, after escaping Nazi Germany which had labelled his music as decadent because he was a Jew.  He taught at UCLA and John Cage was one of his students.  Schoenberg was fixated on the number 13, having been born on the 13th of September and he regarded it an unlucky number.  When an astrologer told him on his turning 76, he would have a bad year because 6+7=13, he went into a deep depression and died on July 13, 1951.

 

 

O. Respighi: Pines of Rome

I lived in Italy from 1980 to 1982. I’m not too familiar with Respighi’s work, aside from this, which I’ve only heard bits from over the years on classical music channels. The title was enough to grab my attention.

This picture should explain why.

Pines-of-Rome

These are umbrella pine trees and they are all over Italy, but in Rome they are particularly striking, especially when you catch a glimpse of them at sunset running along the crest of a hill.

 

Once in Paestum, I parked my rental car under one in a parking lot. When I got out, I looked down and saw a small nut about the size of a pistachio, but harder and smoother. I cracked it open and ate the meat. It was a pignolo, a pine nut, like the ones you grind up with basil and olive oil and parmesan and salt and pepper to make pesto. What a nice surprise.

These pines are called stone pines and here’s what Wikipedia says about them: “The stone pine, with the botanical name Pinus pinea, is also called the Italian stone pine, umbrella pine and parasol pine.

Respiphi’s Pines of Rome dates to 1924. It has four movements depicting Roman Pines in different places in the city.

      1.1 Pines of the Villa Borghese (I pini di Villa Borghese: Allegretto vivace)
      1.2 Pines Near a Catacomb (Pini presso una catacomba: Lento)
      1.3 Pines of the Janiculum (I pini del Gianicolo: Lento)
    1.4 Pines of the Appian Way (I pini della Via Appia: Tempo di marcia)

Respiphi became music master at St. Cecilia’s church in Trastevere. I visited the church in 2010 when on my honeymoon. It is build on the ruins of a Roman Villa, church, and mausoleum. Below the church you can wander through the streets of ancient Rome and there’s a beautiful medieval chapel under the church as well. Here are some pictures I shot back then.

May 26 Rome 210

May 26 Rome 286

May 26 Rome 277

May 26 Rome 276

May 26 Rome 275

May 26 Rome 254

May 26 Rome 253

May 26 Rome 247

May 26 Rome 237

Here’s another piece called Suite “Sinfonia” in E major (1907):

 

Michael Tippett: Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, for String Orchestra

British composers never cease to amaze me. They never get the kind of exposure that Teutonic 3 B’s (Bach, Beethoven & Brahms) get, so I’m always amazed when I stumble upon some piece or composer heretofore unknown to me and it turns out to be delightful. Don’t know much about Tippett except what’s on Wikipedia. In his music I hear the lush harmonies and rhythms of Britten and the American-Armenian, Hovhannes. Wiki says he was a pacifist in WWII and was arrested for refusing to to any kind of replacement duty.

Michael Tippett (1905-1992), one of the most significant British composers of the twentieth century, retained an independent voice and an eclectic style throughout his long career. He wrote in virtually every genre, including symphonies, piano sonatas, string quartets, vocal music, choral music, and opera. His music is notable for its rhythmic vitality, melodic quirkiness, and distinctive orchestration. He first came to prominence in 1941 with his oratorio A Child of Our Time. He is especially remembered for two of his operas, The Midsummer Marriage and King Priam, his Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, and his Concerto for Double String Orchestra. ~ Stephen Eddins, Rovi

Giacomo Puccini – “Crisantemi” (Chrysanthemums)

From 1980 to 1982 I lived in Italy, the first year in Naples, the second in Rome. How does a boy from Indiana get bitten by the Italian bug? The country grabbed my attention in the early 1970s the moment I saw my first Fellini film, Satyricon. It was either my friend, Kerry Wade, or my high school english teacher in my junior year, William Ribblet, who turned me on to it.

The film’s depiction of life in ancient Rome, blew me away. It was a harsh, brutal society, but it gave us western civilization and the foundation of our republican democracy. But I wasn’t thinking of that in high school: Satyricon overflowed with sex, which for a teenager was continuously on my mind. And it also showed an ancient world that was a funny, venal, and real as our modern one.

The scene in Satyricon that blew me away showed how blasé and decadent the Romans had become by the 3rd century before Alaric and the Visigoths sacked the city. The action takes place in the house of a wealthy roman patrician who has hired a troupe of actors to give a performance of some ancient Greek tragedy. The master of the house, epicene and impotent, is unimpressed by the play. To spice things up, the manager of the troupe comes out and announces a special treat. They will bring out a criminal caught stealing and cut his hand off. Which they do. Supposedly, it was not fake. Fellini found a person who had a gangrenous hand and paid him to have his hand cut off, heavily drugged of course, which Fellini filmed.

In his 1972 film Roma, Fellini drew an even stronger parallel between ancient and modern day Rome by in a scene where a modern construction crew takes an archeologist down into the bowels of Rome because they had discovered an ancient Roman villa while digging a subway tunnel. The villa was almost intact with wonderful frescoes on the walls. As more are discovered, you realize that they are actually portraits of the modern visitors. Then the air from modern day Rome, with its pollution, starts to eat away the paint and stucco of the frescoes and in a few minutes they disappear in front of our eyes.

Today’s piece, “Chrysanthemum” has nothing to do with my time in Italy. I heard it some 15 years after moving back to the states, (why I still sometimes wonder). My wife and I ended up living in the god-forsaken town of Gaithersburg, Maryland, which lies about 20 miles north of Washington, DC. Our suburb was beautiful. I had a 3000 square foot house. The neighbors had immaculate lawns. There was a community pool. The neighbors were lawyers, businessmen, veterinarians, journalists, catholics, evangelicals, white, and computer entrepreneurs. Many were drunks. Not once did I ever have an interesting conversation with any of them about classical music, art or literature.

One forlorn day, riding back from somewhere into this air-conditioned nightmare, I switched on the classical music channel, WBJC from Baltimore. Today’s piece by Puccini was playing. My heart melted at its beauty. I wondered why I had never heard it before. Maybe it’s overshadowed by all of his operas.

Puccini wrote it as a string quartet in 1890, “Alla memoria di Amedeo di Savoia Duca d’Aosta.” Allegedly, he wrote it in a single night in memory of his friend, Amadeo, the Duke of Aosta. Amadeo, according to Wikipedia, was “the second son of King Vittorio Emanuele II (King of Piedmont, Savoy, Sardinia and, later, first King of Italy).” He himself became King of Spain from 1870 to 1873, at which point he abdicated because the country was turning into a republic, and moved to Turin. Puccini was active at that time and they became friends. I’m not a big fan of the monarchy, but this they did cause some great works of art to come into being. And art has the power to assuage the soul, even if you live in Gaithersburg.

Arco di Augusto (Inside the two Arches) by ik1wdc

A short virtual tour around this monument available here : Arco di Augusto From Wikipedia Wikipedia history Thank you all for the visit and support Ardam via

Source: Arco di Augusto (Inside the two Arches) by ik1wdc

Here’s the video of Susa, Italy’s Arc of Augustus.

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