For today’s piece I have chosen Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. I chose it because of a story I tell below about a visit to Nice, France in 1977. Actually, I believe my first hearing of this piece took place in high school. Back then there was this rock group named Emerson, Lake and Palmer whose keyboardist, Keith Emerson, used to do synthesized arrangements of famous classical works.
They used to slip these into their albums, and since they chose quite loud and thundering works, their fans seemed to think this was OK. Of course, in the late 60s the lines between the highbrow and lowbrow music forms seemed to become all blurred. Switched on Bach, helped bring classical music to a wider audience as did the Swingle Singers who would do a capella versions of famous baroque pieces. I believe ELP did an entire album of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. There is still a lot of blurring going on, but nowadays the appreciation for the traditional classical work among pop musician is rare. Among the general population, to boot. In fact, it’s kind of boring listening to classical stations nowadays because you tend to hear the same things over and over again–i.e., the pieces that everyone likes and don’t challenge the listener.
Of course, some of the classical works created in 20th century were such intellectual exercises that they became kind of unlistenable. Schoenberg and John Cage spring to mind. The really successful composers, however, took a different tack and went the route of finding traditional melodies and then working them into great orchestral pieces while using modern harmonies, instrumentation and rhythms. Bartok, Holst, Vaughn Williams in Europe and Copland in the US, for example, still are among the most performed of the modern composers.
Now, I’m not a great fan of brass for brass’s sake. In fact, nothing turns my stomach more than things like all brass versions of the classics and Christmas music. Much more appealing is a balanced use of brass as an integral part of the orchestra–as in Stravinsky. However, there are some pieces, like Janacek’s Sinfonietta and today’s piece, Fanfare for the Common Man, where the almost exclusive use of brass works perfectly.
You probably know the Fanfare. It starts with a few loud beats on the tympani, followed by the trumpet blasts that announce the theme, which is quite inspiring. This pattern–tympani followed by trumpets–is repeated a number of times until it all comes to a rousing climax a few minutes later. In a way, it is kind of a reverse image of Strauss’s opening of Thus Spake Zarathustra which starts with the horns and uses the tympani as the break. The nice thing about the Copland is that it has a good wholesome positive American feel to it, which validates the composer’s goal of creating American classical music that is as good as European. So here’s to Copland for giving our music its legs.
Nice Was Nice
The proprietors of the hotel where I stayed in Nice, France, in February of 1977 recommended I stay in town until Carnival. Now, in boring northern Indiana where I was raised a Catholic, the week before Lent was never celebrated. Instead it was full of foreboding as people prepared to remember the betrayal, suffering, and death of Christ. Maybe that’s because I grew up among dour, penny pinching, Belgians, and even more ponderous Hungarians. None of our rituals, either religious or secular, ever celebrated life. Instead, they were excuses for getting together to drink. But the proprietors of my hotel in Nice said “Le Carneval de Nice? C’est connu.” (“Nice’s carnival is well known.”) So I decided to stay another week.
Nice had plenty of interesting sights and sites and I would spend hours poking around different parts of the city. Not to far from my hotel sat a fantastic little Russian church. I call it fantastic because it had numerous surrealistic onion domes, some covered in gold leaf, others with a swirling pattern, and still others covered with blue and yellow tiles. Another day, I struck out for the old town, which lay near the port. This delightfully popular quarter sits at the east-most end of the Bay of Angels at the foot of the 92-meter hill I described climbing a few days earlier and which I described in my previous post. The old city is shot through with winding narrow streets that run along high, terra cotta buildings dating from the 17th century. These creep up the hill and as you walk through you have to dodge running children, motor scooters, and dripping laundry hung on lines and balconies overhead. It had a good feel, twenty-two years ago, and little shops and restaurants helped animate and spice up the locale with the gossip of housewives and the redolence of fish and mussels cooked in garlic. For this was the city that gave us Salade Nicoise and prided itself on its fresh mussels. You could buy the latter in quart-sized plastic containers at walk-up windows.
One day, while walking along this area I stumbled across an open market, which stretched for at least a mile. In addition to the fruit, vegetable, fish, and olive sellers, vendors had set up little booths to produce ready-made treats. At one, a man stoked a fire under an enormous copper pot. His wife used a huge wooden spoon to stir a chthonian mixture of melted sugar and almonds. They were making pralines. At another, a brazier filled with coal mixed its bitter smell with the aroma of roasting chestnuts. What really made my eyes pop, however, were the fish markets. On banks of crushed ice garnished with kelp lay crimson red mullet, sole, flounder, Dublin bay prawns, lobsters, shrimp, octopus, squid, sea snails, crabs, clams, mussels and other species of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks unknown to me. One vendor had a wagonload of sea urchins and every so often he’d pick one up, scoop out the insides and show a customer the edible, swollen sex organs.
One day, I climbed the big hill again and went to pay a visit to the cemetery and the “Place Friederich Nietzsche.” The cemetery astounded me. It consisted of individual tombs about the size of a small hut, made of pure marble and edged with gilt lettering. Clearly the domain of the rich, this little city contrasts sharply with the populist section of town above which it sits. Indeed, it seemed a bit like someone’s demented idea of heaven, clean and proper with gold-paved streets and cool, shiny houses. Kind of gave me the creeps, and I almost expected to see a television aerial affixed to one of the small mausoleums as in that famous cartoon in the New Yorker by Charles Addams.
Carnival turned out to be quite exciting-the first time. In addition to the floats and the colorful and grotesque huge papier-mache heads, there were performers from every country. I especially liked the Japanese drummers. They walked along almost in loincloths, looking a bit like Yukio Mishima, their sinuous muscles bulging. Each held two round drumstick, each about two inches in diameter. They used these to beat complicated rhythms, in perfect unison, on the banks of drums that were affixed to their float. At the same time, they produced a half-chant/half song accompaniment that sounded not quite martial.
The crowd at the Carnival was comprised of fairly middle class people, who obviously had a different notion of “cutting loose” than I did. The men wore nice overcoats and most of the women, usually middle aged, wore fur coats. Whenever a float or band of musicians passed, they used it as an excuse to throw massive amounts of confetti. This was just around the time that those little spray cans of foam liquid streamers came out and they also used these to pelt their friends and neighbors. Being alone, I stood by taking it all in. At one point, a woman in fur noticed that I wasn’t throwing confetti, nor was anyone throwing it at me, so she said “Oh, le pauvre!” and she and her friends christened me, as it were.
On the way back to my hotel, I took a side street that ran parallel to the one where the parade was taking place. About a block ahead on the opposite side of the street, a middle class French stepped onto the sidewalk from the entrance of an apartment building. They obviously had been making “rather merry” as the wife teetered genially along on her husband’s arm. I continued on my way and glanced up to see that they had stopped and the woman was between two parked cars. As I came abreast of them, I heard the flow of water and looked to see that the woman was crouching between the two cars and emptying her bladder. That they didn’t even take note of me as I passed spoke reams about their matter-of-fact attitude of the French toward the body. Everyone has to urinate, from pauper to prime minister, and there is no shame in it. When nature calls, one has to answer. And somehow, that made me feel a little more at home in France.