July 3 birthday of Leos Janáček: Taras Bulba–Rhapsody for Orchestra (1918)

Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928) is the second most famous Czech composer after Dvorak. I’m a bigger fan of his “Sinfonetta,” but Taras Bulba showcases his syncretism of classical, folk and 20th century musical currents.

June 21. Pavel Haas’ Birthday: A Study For Strings

Another victim of the goddamned Holocaust.  Czech composer, Pavel Haas, was one of the most successful of Leoš Janáček‘s pupils.  This piece was written in Theresienstadt, a concentration camp located in former Czechoslovakia where he wrote the piece.  This camp was the one that was dressed up for a visit from the International Red Cross to prove that no Jews were suffering.  A film was made of this by a director hired by the camp’s commandant.  It showed a children’s choir singing one of Haas’ works.  After the film was finished, 18,000 inmates were transferred to Auschwitz where they were gassed in 1944.

It is hard to believe that 72 years later, acts of terrorism, hate crimes against gays, and murder of people of color, and massacres by one religious faction of another, still have not abated.  No lessons learned from WWII?

Here’s his wikipedia entry.

June 15. Edvard Grieg’s Birthday: Holberg Suite

Today is the birthday of the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg (15 June 1843 – 4 September 1907). Most people know his Piano Concerto in A and Peer Gynt Suite. I had heard snippets of the Holberg from time to time on the local classical channel over the years, not knowing what it was. It wasn’t until about 20 years ago when my daughter was studying violin that at a concert of the National Symphony Orchestra that I heard it in its full for the first time. A late Romantic and contemporary of Dvorak and Tchaikowski, Grieg’s Holberg reminds me of their Serenades for Strings. It’s lush and warm at times it has a classical feel and at others reminds me of Britten’s Simple Symphony based on English folksongs.

Here’s his wikipedia entry.

Brahms, Dvorak, Mahler, the Byrds and Buddhas

There is a Theosophist saying (sometimes attributed to Buddha) that goes, “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” The origin of the word Buddha means “to wake up” and people think of the Buddha as a great teacher. And what is a great teacher but someone who wakes you up? Why this is important to me is because, whenever I most needed it, a person has appeared in my life to either teach me or point me in the right direction. There have been three outstanding Buddha’s in my life.

In my junior year of high school, I became good friends with a classmate whose family was completely different from my own. They all listened to classical music, read The New Yorker, discussed classic works of literature, and studied languages. That’s where I first heard this Brahms trio:

They opened up a whole other world for me. I felt so uncultured in their presence that I devoted myself to turning myself into an “intellectual.” I read voraciously, bought tons of classical music, and studied the works of great artists.

This became a problem, though, when it came time to go to college. My three older brothers had gone to a state university that had good math and science programs and it was expected that I go there. What’s more my father was convinced that computer science was the wave of the future, so that’s what I declared as my major. I was profoundly unhappy. It seemed so dull compared to the world of art and literature I had come to love. That is when the first Buddha showed up.

One day after my biology class, the teacher singled me out from a lecture hall of over two hundred students and asked me to come to talk with him. He listened to me as I explained my dreams, ideas, and dissatisfaction. Then he told me that I had to look really hard into myself to find my true desires and then follow them. I was listening to a lot of Dvorak at the time.

At the end of the semester, I transferred to a liberal arts university and went on to major in French and then got a masters degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages.

That degree took me to Algeria in 1980, where I taught English at a technical institute. There I met another Buddha. The school provided me with an apartment, which I shared with a fellow ex-patriot from Michigan. He had lived there for several years and had figured out all the tricks to survive in a bureaucratic socialist country. He loved this Byrd’s album, which is a classic as it’s probably from the first country rock album.

From him, I learned how to be self sufficient, but he gave me another gift as well. One day, he told me that the Fulbright foundation was offering scholarships to do teacher training in English as a Second language in Italy. He knew of my love of Italian movies and told me to apply.

I applied–and won! For the next two years, I lived first in Naples and then in Rome and traveled extensively throughout the south of Italy. In Naples I met a woman, who was teaching English at the British council, whom I convinced to marry me. When my two years were over, we returned to the States and after getting another masters degree in educational technology, I ended up Washington, DC developing training programs in the late 1980s for a large development organization to teach people how to use an amazing new technology–email! I wonder if it was coincidence that I started listening to minimalist music like this piece by John Adams:

The organization had just started a fitness center.  After 10 years, I read an announcement in an email that came round about a new session of Tai Chi for beginners that would soon be starting. Something told me to go. There I met a remarkable man, master Quyen Tran, who had been teaching the class for some 10 years. Mr. Tran comes from Vietnam, and though one of the most important financial analysts at the our organization, he was a very humble and unassuming man. His teaching technique was as old as the hills–you follow a master, learn by doing, observing, and practicing. It is a type of teaching which has almost died out in the West, except in some of the trades. Once upon a time, this is how all knowledge was passed down. Not only is it a transfer of knowledge, it is the building of a relationship.

Around this time I discovered Mahler’s 3rd Symphony and this wonderful 4th movement, which both grounds me and elevates me at the same time:

It turns out that Tai Chi has been the one activity that has really brought the two parts of my being-mind and body–together. You must use your mind and body together, and you can’t focus on anything else. The more I practice it, the more I find an increased ability to concentrate, to let go of stress, to figure the right way to treat people and the right answers to the problems and challenges that life and work throw up.

I’ve been doing it now for 16 years and people who know me will tell you I sometimes backslide and get insanely stressed out. But where would I be if I hadn’t found these Buddhas who’ve pointed me the way along this wonderful journey called life?

Antonin Dvorak: The Golden Spinning Wheel

In my last post, I wrote about a stash of classical albums I picked up at a garage sale when I was in high school in the 1970s.  Another record in the “classical cache” of albums held a little gem–a tone poem called The Golden Spinning Wheel by Antonin Dvorak. I don’t believe I had ever heard of Dvorak before, but it interested me that he was Czech, since my grandfather came from Eastern Europe. The music didn’t sound at all like any of the gypsy melodies we listened to every Sunday on the Hungarian Hour, though.

When I first started listening to classical music, half the fun was seeing the mental images each new piece evoked for me. Later in college, I read a lecture by Stravinski, in which he criticized composers who wrote visual or onomotopoeic music for popular tastes. In the liner notes to Rite of Spring, Igor let it slip that the Disney Studios only offered him a pittance for the right to use that piece in Fantasia. They supposedly told him that if he didn’t like it, too bad–they didn’t have to pay him anything since the Russian copyrights weren’t valid in the United States. So I don’t think Stravinski was completely unbiased on the issue of visual music. (He also once wrote he thought the gramophone was generally a bad idea.  More on that below.)

Several years ago, my daughter asked me to let her take violin lessons. The teacher followed the Suzuki method, and owning an old violin I bought in high school with the hopes of one day learning, I was happy when the teacher encouraged me to learn as well. As a result, I understand a little more now about what’s going on in a piece musically, and so sometimes listening to music is more an intellectual activity than a visual/emotional one for me. That, by the way, was why Stravinksi didn’t like gramophones–he thought it would expose music to people who had no musical training, who would therefore not understand. Another example of the Western schism between mind and body. Learning researchers find we remember better when we involve more of the senses. And to try to turn shut your mind’s eye to visual images seems a bit pointless (and boring, too!) Thinking back on all the pieces I’ve so far written about, they remain vivid and still beloved precisely because I formed visual associations with them.

The Golden Spinning Wheel starts out with the French horns quietly puffing out a loping melody. Today it still makes me imagine myself standing in a field in the English countryside. It is a foggy morning and in the distance a pack of hounds and red-clad horsemen ride by, in hot pursuit of a fox. Following this introduction, the full orchestra swells up dramatically into a romantic melody. The piece alternates between these two themes until the end. What this has to do with a dove I don’t know, and I can’t find the old vinyl anymore, which I had probably worn out anyway.

I haven’t told my daughter about the images The Golden Spinning Wheel conjures up for me. She’s an animal rights activist, vegetarian and she volunteers at a local no-kill animal shelter. She’d cry “Poor Fox!” Sometimes her extremism rankles me a bit–as does extremism of any sort. Which is why I’m happy to have been reminded, in writing this, of how important it is to just take your mind on a visual vacation, with the music cranked up.

Antonin Dvorak, Symphony Number 9 in E Minor

One of the pieces I remember listening to repeatedly during my first sophomore semester at Indiana University in 1974, was Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony Number 9 in E Minor, subtitled “From the New World.”

Dvorak came to the United States in 1892 to take up a position as a teacher in a music conservatory started in New York by a wealthy patron named Jeanette Thurber. Dvorak came from remote Bohemia and was supposedly enthralled by the cosmopolitan environment, the bustle of trains and sense of progress. He also became fascinated by and wrote enthusiastically about the beauty of Negro Spirituals. Some critics and musicologist therefore find the symphony to be inspired by that type of music, some even suggesting the first movement has a theme based on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Dvorak denied this, saying his music owed its origin to Bohemian melodies, even though he elsewhere said it was composed in the spirit of American folk music.

Written in 1893, the symphony found a receptive audience and it has become part of the standard repertory. Though starting out on with a kind of gloomy introduction, the first movement quickly changes into a majestic and sinewy statement of confidence. The second movement, marked largo delivers a number of beautiful, lyrical melodies, which in turn convey peace, anguish, and solemnity. Dvorak keeps it from turning maudlin, however, by letting the English horn introduce a joyous melody about 2/3 of the way through. It starts out almost like the twitter of a butterfly but then picks up tempo and become quite uplifting. I used to whiz around campus on my bike, weaving in and out of pedestrians, whistling this section as loud as I could. This was probably another reason no one considered me a babe magnet.

The first time I heard the third movement, it seemed similar to the beginning of the scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth. Dvorak takes his scherzo into much more cheery place, however. The final movement begins with a tympani crash and the orchestra playing full tilt a rousing theme, which dominates most of the movement. Dvorak does not make this overly pompous, though, and he does weave in one fluid theme followed by a lyrical one, before reverting back to the fire and passion in this movement. Funny, I just read that the movement is called Allegro con fuoco (fast with fire).

As I said, I listened to this piece a lot in the fall of 1974 around the time I lost my faith.

According to what I learned in Sunday school, there were two types of sins-mortal and venial. If you died without having confessed your venal sins, you went to purgatory where you stayed until the fire burned the sins away. If you died with an unconfessed mortal sin, purgatory held no hope; you were damned. So this is how the church keeps you coming back–classify most human behaviors and thoughts as sins of one kind of another, only allow confession on Saturday, and finalize the process of ablution with communion on Sunday.

Despite this scheme, there was one sin that was so bad that having committed it, there was no way to expunge it, and you would go straight to hell. Note even contrition or confession could save you. That sin consisted of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, you will recall, formed part of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now you could form a pretty good mental image and God and Jesus based on popular images, but what did the Holy Ghost look like? The only pictures I’d ever seen of it appeared in my little catechism book and family bible, where after Jesus’ resurrection, it descends from heaven and floats above the heads of the disciples either as a small tongue of flame or else as a dove. The nuns never explained what the Holy Spirit signified or why it was so bad to blaspheme against it. So how could you even form enough of an opinion about it to want to bad mouth it? What’s not to like about a bird?

Of course, once you tell someone they must not even think bad thoughts about something, it’s almost impossible to stop yourself from doing so. So about half an hour after the nuns told us that one, I reckon about 9/10 of the class were convinced they were going straight to hell. Therein lies the real genius of the Catholic church. People who had blasphemed might think they could do something to wipe out that ultimate sin, and that hope would keep them coming back to church.

There had to be exceptions right? I once met a girl at university who had like me grown up in a catholic household. After she had heard about the Holy Ghost sin, she committed it. Then her reasoning started to go like this: “Well, I’ve done the big one. I’m damned. So why bother trying to be good any more?” When she got to college, she therefore dedicated herself to indulging in every hedonistic pleasure she could–sex and drugs and rock and roll.

Now when I left the Catholic church in 1974, that lure of hedonism didn’t appeal to me. I don’t know why. I was probably so much of a nerd, wrapped up in my philosophy and classical music, that those attractions seemed beneath me. Not that I didn’t indulge from time to time, but they never came to dominate my life. Maybe that is why I was drawn to Buddhism–because of the philosophy of finding the right and balanced way to live one’s life. That and because I was terminally shy about approaching women. Fear of rejection, plain and simple.

So there I was, godless, girl-less, and gutless. But lest I paint a more dire picture than it actually was, there were definite high points, and music like Dvorak’s New World Symphony played a large role in leading me to them. To me the spirit of such music is what is “holy” in this life, and that is something I have never been able to blaspheme. Hope that gets me into heaven.

Download the MP3 or buy CD of Dvorak at Amazon

Antonin Dvorak: The Wood Dove

Another record in the “classical cache” of albums I found in a garage sale held a little gem–a tone poem called The Wood Dove by Antonin Dvorak. I don’t believe I had ever heard of Dvorak before, but it interested me that he was Czech, since my grandfather came from Eastern Europe. The music didn’t sound at all like any of the gypsy melodies we listened to every Sunday on the Hungarian Hour, though.

When I first started listening to classical music, half the fun was seeing the mental images each new piece evoked for me. Later in college, I read a lecture by Stravinski, in which he criticized composers who wrote visual or onomotopoeic music for popular tastes. In the liner notes to Rite of Spring, Igor let it slip that the Disney Studios only offered him a pittance for the right to use that piece in Fantasia. They supposedly told him that if he didn’t like it, too bad–they didn’t have to pay him anything since the Russian copyrights weren’t valid in the United States. So I don’t think Stravinski was completely unbiased on the issue of visual music. (He also once wrote he thought the gramaphone was generally a bad idea.)

Several years ago, my daughter asked me to let her take violin lessons. The teacher followed the Suzuki method, and owning an old violin I bought in high school with the hopes of one day learning, I was happy when the teacher encouraged me to learn as well. As a result, I understand a little more now about what’s going on in a piece musically, and so sometimes listening to music is more an intellectual activity than a visual/emotional one for me. That, by the way, was why Stravinksi didn’t like gramaphones–he thought it would expose music to people who had no musical training, who would therefore not understand. Another example of the Western schism between mind and body. Learning researchers find we remember better when we involve more of the senses. And to try to turn shut your mind’s eye to visual images seems a bit pointless (and boring, too!) Thinking back on all the pieces I’ve so far written about, they remain vivid and still beloved precisely because I formed visual associations with them.

The Wood Dove starts out with the French horns quietly puffing out a loping melody. Today it still makes me imagine myself standing in a field in the English countryside. It is a foggy morning and in the distance a pack of hounds and red-clad horsemen ride by, in hot pursuit of a fox. Following this introduction, the full orchestra swells up dramatically into a romantic melody. The piece alternates between these two themes until the end. What this has to do with a dove I don’t know, and I can’t find the old vinyl anymore, which I had probably worn out anyway.

I haven’t told my daughter about the images The Wood Dove conjures up for me. She’s an animal rights activist, vegetarian and she volunteers at a local no-kill animal shelter. She’d cry “Poor Fox!” Sometimes her extremism rankles me a bit–as does extremism of any sort. Which is why I’m happy to have been reminded, in writing this, of how important it is to just take your mind on a visual vacation, with the music cranked up.

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