March 30, 2016 Leave a comment
My God This Is Amazing!
Video post by @giobrach.
( A love affair with music)
March 30, 2016 Leave a comment
My God This Is Amazing!
Video post by @giobrach.
March 26, 2016 4 Comments
Happy Easter. Even if you aren’t a believer, there is something wonderful and redemptive and renewing about the spring.
Bach: Easter, Mass in B minor
Bach’s Easter Oratorio: Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4
Mahler – Symphony No 2, Resurrection
Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus–Beethoven
Oratorio: Christ on the Mount of Olives–Hallelujah
February 14, 2016 2 Comments
In honor of St. Valentine’s Day, I wanted to post these three excerpts that capture exquisitely (for me) the transcendent and healing power of love. They are Carl Orff, “Amor Volat Undique,” “Stetit Puella” and “Dulcissime” from Carmina Burana.
Amor Volat Unique (Love Flies Everywhere)
“If a girl lacks a man
she misses all delight;
darkest night is at the bottom
of her heart.
This is the bitterest fate.
Stetit Puella (There Stood A Girl)
There stood a maid
in a red tunic;
when it was touched
the tunic rustled.
There stood a girl,
like a rose;
her face was radiant;
her mouth bloomed.
Dulcissime (The Sweetest Boy)
Sweetest one! Ah!
I give myself to you totally!
While reading about Carmina Burana today, I found out that Orff intended it to be performed with choreography, dance, interesting design and other stage action. In 2009, I attended the 40th anniversary of the Oregon Country Fair. This event was started in 1969 by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and runs for three days in a wilderness area of the Willamette Valley, outside of Eugene. At this gathering of the heirs of the 1960s counter culture, 45,000 people come, many in costume, to spend three days listening to music, browsing booths where craftspeople sell their hand-made items, watching and performing music, getting massages, eating organic food, and generally being mellow. As a stodgy, up-tight, 54 year-old guy from Washington DC, I was sucked in by the freedom and loving atmosphere.
Here is an account written by one of the performers.
The last concert of the weekend took place in a large field at one of which was a large bandshell. All weekend I’d listened to music of the Beatles, Grateful Dead, and folk and 60s rock and psychedelic traditions. So I was pleased to see the culminating event was to be a performance of Carmina Burana accompanied by a “Fire Choir.” This was a group of volunteer musicians, actors, singers, acrobats and fire handlers. It sounds a bit odd, but it turned out to be a really good musical performance (some of the vocal parts are notoriously hard to sing), and the performance at sunset with the fire handlers was, to use a 1960s term, groovy. Here are two clips.
August 6, 2015 5 Comments
I’ve been writing a lot lately about pieces that have watery themes. Bach certainly did not have water on the brain when he penned this minuet, but in the 60s the tune was used in a Motown pop record. A woman with a strong, gospel-trained voice belted out the words, which went something like “How gentle is the rain…”
It’s not hard to imagine how this melody got to Detroit. In 1994, my daughter started violin lessons. Her teacher used the Suzuki books, which have graded pieces. The Minuet in G major is one of the last ones in the first book. It also happens to be one of the first pieces in the key of G, which on the violin requires different fingering than what you’ve been blithely playing for nearly a year.
In the key of A, starting on the third string, you play open string, put the first finger down for B and then play C and D with the second and third fingers–all three being equally spaced. On the G scale, however–which starts with the third finger on the second string–when you get to the A string, you put the first finger down like you’ve always done, but to play B you suddenly put the second finger down right next to the first! All major scales go whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. The hard thing on the violin is that there are no frets to represent whole and half steps. The piano is luxurious in a way because the placement of the keys and the black keys clearly show which are whole and half.
The minuet was a French country dance that became very popular in the 17th century and which was eventually formalized by composers as an integral part of the suite. Eventually as suites migrated and changed into symphonies, the minuet movement developed into the scherzo. As a simple dance form, it had a three-beat rhythm, like a waltz. It is a good piece for beginners because the strong beat helps you remember it.
Bach had two wives and 20 children! Four of his sons became famous composers in their own right. Their household must have been something. You think: a prototype for the Von Trap family. When I looked online for this piece, I found it buried in what is called the “The Anna Magdalena Notebooks.” He wrote these to teach his second wife, Anna Magdalena, how to play. Poor lady. Imagine having to bear that many children and then sit down to tickle the ivories. I had trouble finding time to have quality time with my two daughters when they were little! How did Anna Magdalena do it? Recently, I heard that after Anna Magdalena raised those children, they abandoned her and she died penniless.
July 26, 2015 4 Comments
Bach supposedly wrote these 30 variations on a simple theme for the insomniacal Count Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador to the kingdom of Saxony. Musical scholars agree they represent the pinnacle of baroque keyboard technique. Their name became associated with the count’s harpsichordist, Johann Goldberg, who was only 14 when they were written. Keyserlingk was so pleased with the work that he gave Bach a goblet filled with 100 Louis D’Or.
I will leave it to others to analyze the music, for example this page is devoted to the nine canons in the variations. In addition to canons, Bach also took the melody and turned it into fugues, arias, French overtures and a quodlibet. These variations are known for being killers–one for example requires the pianist to play with both hands crossed all the way through. They are intricate and meticulously crafted, and though Bach wrote few variations on themes, these are considered the text book examples of how to do so.
A couple of years ago, I was in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in Accra, Ghana, when someone started playing the Goldberg Variations baby grand piano in the small lobby next to the bar. It blew me away, of course, to hear it in such an unexpected place, but even more of a treat was being able to sit almost beside the pianist and watch him play. It turns out he was just the accompaniast for an American soprano who was performing that night.
I first heard the piece, when I was living in the French House of Indiana University, in 1975.
There was an irony to living at the French House–few people living there actually made a point of speaking French. It took too much effort and no one really policed us. A native French resident assistant (RA) did live there both of my years there, but he didn’t have the time to go snooping in on every conversation. During the first year, when the RA, Olivier, did try to get the other members of my clique to speak French, they would do so with the most hideously American accent, and that would shut him up.
Once a week, the French Department would encourage other native speakers and students to come to our cafeteria and sit at the French table, and that was more rigorous. Or they would organize lectures and slide shows in the lounge of our dorm. It was still intimidating to me, who’d never been abroad, and who’d only been lectured to in a kind of academic French, which as different from spoken French as Dickens is to American rap vernacular.
There was a guy in my dorm who was nearly bi-lingual, and I once witnessed Olivier correct him when he made an almost imperceptible pronunciation mistake. It wasn’t like it prevented him from understanding the message, it was sheer one-upsmanship and linguistic (and even cultural) chauvinism. You see, no French person can bear to hear anyone butcher his language.
If you want to learn to speak a langauge, one of the worst ways to go about it is to study it in college. The best way is to have a love affair with a native speaker. The second best way is to go to the country. In university, they usually start with grammar, which is unfortunate, since language changes more rapidly than compilers of grammar books and dictionaries can keep up with. Psycholinguists have shown that learning a language requires mastering a complex blend of psycho-motor, cognitive, and conceptual skills some of which atrophy by the time we get into our late teens. We can learn a second language as an adult, but rarely well enough to be taken as a native speaker, and it takes a long time.
The reason I bring this up is that–despite this psychological fact–years ago when I was learning French, native speakers would not cut you any slack at all when trying to learn their language. To the credit of the French educational system, school children in France are taught to revere their language and use it effectively and efficiently both orally and in writing. Every year, the French newspaper, Le Monde, publishes what is considered to be the best final essay which every high school student must pass in order to matriculate to college. Some of these read like philosophical tracts.
Being shy, that pretty much sucked all the enthusiasm out of my trying to speak French, and I didn’t learn to do so until after graduate school, when I went to Algeria to teach English. Algeria, being a former French colony, had a bilingual population, and being Muslims, prided themselves on being good hosts. They would never correct you, and so there I became comfortable enough to loosen my tongue and made more progress there in 6 months than I had in four years of university study.
This might make it sound like I have something against the French. One thing everybody has to learn is to rely on themselves–their inherent worth–despite how other people react. That was something that I learned only 20 years later and forget from time to time. Other people were much thicker skinned than I was back in the 1970s and learned to speak French.
The French Resident Assistant, who moved into the French House in the fall of 1975, ended up becoming one of my better friends and I still keep in touch, looking him up whenever I am in Paris, where he now lives. His name is Jean-Marc Fernandez, and perhaps we became friends because he actually grew up in Algeria, coming to France after his father was killed there during the revolution in 1962.
Like so many French, Jean-Marc had a lust for all facets of life–the intellectual as well as the artistic. He had come to Indiana University to work on a PHd in political science and business. He spoke Spanish and could hold his own in German and Russian. JM had done his masters degree in American literature and was better-read than I was in the authors of my own country. He also loved film and classical music, preferring, of course, French composers.
The first day he moved into the French, he was surprised to see that an old friend of his, Rosemary Bourgault had moved into a room on the girl’s floor. They immediately became an item and eventually married. But again, he had eclectic tastes and I believe I heard today’s piece, Bach’s Goldberg Variations in his room. It was around that time period that someone had made a film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Slaughterhouse Five which used some of the pieces from the Variations in the sound track. Jean-Marc liked the movie and I think had a copy of the recording.
Glenn Gould seems to be the foremost interpreter of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and I recently heard this 1959 recording he made.
It’s in mono, but I like the youthful interpretation. Compare it to the earlier version and tell me if you prefer one to the other.
July 16, 2015 2 Comments
(This is the one of my posts that has gotten the most hits.)
Johann Sebastian Bach is another one of those great composers whose music can serve as a starting point for someone interested in learning about classical music. I use the term generic term “classical” here to refer to all “serious” music, because as most of you know, Bach falls into the baroque period. Confused yet? I think I can be forgiven, because The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music lists among its definition for “classical”, “music of permanent value, not ephemeral.” The technical definition is to describe music that is concerned with form and proportion rather than emotion, and usually refers to the 18th and early 19th century. The Oxford manages to get a dig in at us hoi polloi: “Amongst less educated people, music with no ‘tune’ in it.” Those whacky Brits. How can you not love a country that gave us Shakespeare and baked beans on toast?
Baroque refers to the period of music immediately preceding classical, that is the 17th and early 18th century, usually from Germany and Austria. Baroque, from the French meaning “bizarre,” was applied to the fanciful wrought-gold and cherub adorned architecture of that time period. Bach was probably the most prolific composers (in more ways than one) of this period: he produced countless works for the organ, chorus, instruments and orchestra—-plus 23 sons. That doesn’t sound too impressive, except for the sons, but consider this, he wrote a cantata (in this case a sung mass) for every day of the year!
I usually think of music from this time period as being either stately—like Handel’s Water Music and Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos—or meticulous like Bach’s works for solo instruments such as the harpsichord, violin, viola and of course the organ. Bach wrote a lot of organ music, having been a church organist and director of the school of the church of Saint Thomas in Leipzig.
The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is probably one of Bach’s most famous and accessible pieces. It gets played a lot around Halloween in the U.S., because some idiot used it the soundtrack for some horror movie years ago. The opening part, the toccata, for that reason now sounds ominous and full of sturm und drang. The fugue is a form of composition that has several “voices” or melodies that start in succession, almost like a round, but then which interweave with one another according to strict rules of harmony. This is why the music to me sounds meticulous or mathematical. The modern philosopher, Douglas Hofstader, wrote a huge tome called Godell, Escher, and Bach in which he analyzes the structure of the fugue, almost ad nauseum.
Another place where the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor turns up is in Walt Disney’s film Fantasia. Leopold Stokowski orchestrated the piece and the Disney cartoonist used the technique of aurora borealis to represent the different voices of the fugue. It’s sort of boring really, and to my mind, kind of emasculates this piece.
Of course, as an adolescent, I was drawn to the toccata, but eventually I came to love the fugue as well, which is actually quite beautiful and sweet compared to the strong emotions in the toccata. In my high school French class, I met a fellow student, named John Claeys, who was a gifted artist and could play the organ by ear. One of his hobbies was collecting decorative molding from abandoned Victorian houses in our county. His basement bedroom looked like something out of a horror film itself, with its dark paneling. John had even found an old upright pump organs on one of his forays and installed this in his lair. He was able to figure out the fingering for part of the toccata and took great pleasure wheezing it out on that old organ.
John and I made a horror movie for our French class with his dad’s super eight camera. I played a crazed madman, who at one point runs out of control in my mothers black 1968 Volkwagen beetle and dirves it over a cliff. John sacrificed one of his plastic car models for the actual crash and burning of the bug. The only thing it had to do with French class were the hand-written dialog cards, which said things like sacre bleu! Of course, we used the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for the soundtrack.
In 1972 or thereabouts, an organist named Virgil Fox, decided to adapt techniques from The Grateful Dead and give concerts with psychedelic light shows. He came to a small private college in my home town and I dragged John along to the concert with me. It was absolutely captivating.
Fox must have thought he was the reincarnation of Franz Lizst: he strode onstage wearing a black cape, which he whirled off as he sat down at his instrument. He played a huge five-manual (keyboard) organ and between pieces he would explain to the audience exactly how each piece was constructed and how complex it was. One piece, I think it was the Gigue Fugue, required him to play four melodies, one with each appendage simultaneously. The crowd—and I—went wild and after he finished he played a number of encores. After each set of applause would die down, I would stand up and scream “Play Toccata and Fugue in D Minor!”. After his fourth encore, and dripping with sweat, he yelled back “OK!” Needless to say, I was transported when he played it, and though somewhat embarrassed by my behavior after all these years, I still enjoy this piece.
April 26, 2015 4 Comments
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