Summer Reruns–Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “Hm!, Hm!, Hm!,” from Die Zauberflote

Few works of classical music can make you laugh. Opera seems particularly ill-visited by the comic muse. Think of Tosca throwing herself of a parapet; Mimi dying of consumption; and Pagliacci stabbing his wife in a jealous rage. Not necessarily what I would call knee-slapping stuff. Even comic opera like The Barber of Seville doesn’t really make me dissolve in howls of laughter. But there is one aria from Die Zauberflote that does.

The opera opens with a dragon in hot pursuit of the Egyptian prince, Tamino. He swoons in fear, but just then, three ladies, the minions of the Queen of the Night, come to his rescue and slay the dragon. As noted in my previous post, Papageno then enters singing his aria, “Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja” (I am the, walrus, sorry “bird catcher”). The singing wakes Tamino, who asks if it was Papageno who saved his life. Papageno says yes, but the three ladies yell at him and for his impertinent lie, and lock his mouth shut.

There follows a hilarious duet between Tamino and Papageno, which, by dint of his condition, Papageno must hum. That piece still makes me laugh, even after 40 years.

Just why did that aria tickle my fancy so much? Probably in Mozart’s time period, people still believed in dragons and magic, so the previous scene with the dragon might have actually seemed frightening to Mozart’s audience. To relieve the stress, Mozart introduces a clown to lighten things up. I was wondering what role a willing suspension of disbelief might play in this. All opera requires this, because who in real life ever sings what’s on their mind unless they be aphasic? Maybe it’s the irony that for once a character in an opera can’t sing, and making him hum a duet despite that is funny. Good clean fun.

What this makes me realize, however, was how my sense of humor started to change as a result of living in the French House at Indiana University in the 1970s. I now wonder if the change was for the better. Until then my sense of humor had been fairly benign. I loved slapstick and corny jokes as a boy. In middle school we studied satire and sarcasm, but the intent was to poke fun of pompous authority figures. At the French House, among my highly vocal and articulate dorm mates, the two preferred forms of humor were wit and putdown, as is often the case with cliques. At the same time, because we were studying French, we all became obsessed with the concept of decadence, i.e., leading a voluptuous and sensual existence. Usually that gets translated into alcohol use and abuse, which tends to sap one’s creativity. The result was that many of us became cynical, lost our nerve, and abandoned our dreams. The clique often couldn’t deal with those who had clear goals and often these became the object of our ridicule or scorn.

I think of one of our dorm mates. He was a gifted singer, a baritone originally, who had discovered that by singing in falsetto, he had a perfect counter-tenor voice. He was active with the early music consort, and I went to see him once in a performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Since he didn’t actively seek to ingratiate himself with our clique, they sniped at him, and he didn’t seem too bothered by it. His name was Drew Minter and he went on to have an international career as a counter tenor.

I’m kind of torn up about this now. The French House was the first place I ever felt accepted for my interests by more than just one or two people. If one lacks a strong sense of self, as was my case at the time, one will gravitate and accept the values of the group that offers acceptance. Now I realize that in identifying with the group of people at the French House I did just that. So perhaps it’s time to let go of that. I am thankful for having met them all. They taught me so much. But in the words of some sage, “when your memories become more real than your dreams, the end is near.”

So since then, I tried to remain objective and non-judgmental of other groups. I’ve also tried to avoid participation in groups that tend to set themselves up as different or better than others–especially cultural or social groups.

Here’s a bio of Drew Minter and him performing Handel’s Vaghe fonti (Arioso di Ottone) from Agrippina.

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Explaining “S.D.G.”

That’s humility.

2pluslovemakes1

This is a letter to Radio Classique in Paris, where an announcer did not understand “S.D.G.”.
There are 2000 works attributed to Bach.  Every one of these works is signed S. D. G.
One of these works is a cantata called, ” Adam must be crucified with Jésus so that New-Man might be born.”
Here, Bach is showing to the world, with no shame, that he understands and lives eternal life.
In the New Jerusalem, where Bach evidently lived, the harmony of the universe must always be maintained. Something that the world can never understand is this law of the universe, because life in the world is not ever affected by this law.
Let me repeat that: the harmony of the universe must always be maintained.  The life of the world is so completely isolated from the universe, out of respect for man, which is the result of love, and…

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Georg Friederich Handel: Israel in Egypt

In my last post, I wrote about Mark Z*, a guy down the hall in the French House at Indiana University where I lived in 1975. Mark was majoring in Art History, and had a particular fascination for the Byzantine empire. You will remember that the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century and then moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople–the present-day Istanbul.

The Byzantine empire lasted over 1000 years and once stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Constantinople, sitting on a peninsula overlooking the Bosporous toward Anatolia, was a cosmopolitan gateway for Europe to Asia and vice versa. Unfortunately, that made it a prime target and, though the seat of a Christian Theocracy, Constantinople was conquered by the Crusaders and eventually fell to the Turks. During Byzantine era, art, architecture, and philosophy all flourished. The Christian liturgy was formalized in court and religious rituals. In Byzantium, modern harmony actually started to develop.

A few years ago, I attended a conference on Byzantine Eschatology (death rituals and views of the afterlife) at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. One of the presenters, Diane Touliatos from St. Louis University, delivered a paper in which she described how the three types of events around death–expressions of grief, consolation and joy in the defeat of enemies–turned into musical traditions. When someone died, back then, it was quite common for members of the families, especially women, to pull their hair, claw their cheeks and keen, that is wail and scream. This practiced became formalized and one could even rent groups of women to perform this function. Eventually their vocal expressions became chanted or sung.

Another tradition was the dirge or lamentation. These types of music grew out of the mass in which the priest would sing a phrase and the men would respond. That type of singing became the traditional Gregorian chants, which were not harmonic, because the different voices simply sang the same notes but at intervals of a full octave. Chants started to become harmonic, with the addition of a drone. Some men sang a single base note while the rest of the choir sung the lamentation. This type of singing was also employed for singing the Psalms, kind of like shown in this video:

At some point, someone started letting the professional wailers into the church to participate in the ritual mass for the dead. One can imagine the cacophony when that happened. Originally the church fathers tried to prevent the participation of the “keeners,” but eventually someone, the first choir master, no doubt got them all working together. Still, if you listen to this early harmony, it sounds very odd to our ears. Recently there have been some recordings of this type of music, and you can get an idea of the old harmonies in listening to that Bulgarian shout-singing, which became popular about 30 years ago.

Mark Z* loved Byzantine art and the ritualized melding of religion and authority implicit in a theocracy. He came from a devout polish family that lived near Chicago, and eventually left school and now paints icons and crucifixes as a sideline. Mark once told with great relish the story of one of his more outrageous local priests, who, during an Easter pageant, went overboard and actually brought sheep into church.

In my previous post, I said that Mark refused to listen to anything later than Renaissance music, but I was wrong. He stopped at Baroque. One of his favorite works was a piece by Handel, that I have never heard in its entirety, Israel in Egypt. This oratorio covers the story of Moses and his attempts to free the Jews from Pharaoh’s slavery. One would think it pretty serious, having been brought up watching Cecil B. DeMille’sTen Commandments with a stone faced Charleton Heston (Mister NRA spokesman for a while) as a grizzled Moses. The oratorio, however, contains what I consider to be one of the funniest pieces of music ever written, and so I put it on the list of my favorites.

The aria is called “The land brought forth frogs.” It comes from the scene in the Bible where Moses calls on God to visit a number of plagues on Egypt to get Pharaoh to release the Jews. The music, is one of those thrilling baroque choruses that Handel was so good at, full of pomp and righteousness. The words, however, put us all in stitches, when Mark played it for us in his dorm room:

“The land brought forth frogs.
He gave their cattle over to the pestilence blotches and blains…”

To make it even more ridiculous, Handel gave this aria to the counter tenor, which is a man’s bass voice sung in falsetto. To hear a man singing the words, “blotches and blains” in a woman’s soprano range, was too camp for words.

Another screamingly funny aria was, “He spake the word.”  Used when Moses called up another plague which brought down “all manner of flies and lice.”

And these phrases became sort of a password for our group for a while. What can I say? You had to be there.

Haendel’s Biography

Download MP3 or buy CD of Israel In Egypt from Amazon

George Frideric Handel: Watermusic

During my senior year of high school, my best friend was named Gary Endicott. Gary had been on the swim team and he was a year older than I. He spent his freshman year going to the local community college, and so we hung out together. We had a number of common interests and were both terminally shy around girls. Thus we spent many a long, drunken hour commiserating with each other.

Gary’s father worked for a meat wholesaler and the family lived in a small house at the corner of a large farm that had belonged to Gary’s grandfather. Gary’s mother worked at home for the local photo studio hand colorizing high school portraits using tiny tubes of oil paints. It seemed like every time I went by the house, Gary’s mom would pull out the picture of some local beauty and say “You should ask her out.” Gary would groan, “Aw, mom,” and we’d invariably go out, get drunk and commiserate some more.

Mr. Endicott liked to make Martinis using Gilbey’s gin, and he’d often offer us one with a twinkle in his eye. He once told us that in high school he and his buddies had wired their shop teacher’s chair up to the electrical outlet. They’d gotten expelled for that. I liked Mr. Endicott: he smoked El Producto cigars, encouraged us to do so, and always had a joke to tell.

Gary was good in math, and because I was reading a lot of literature and philosophy my senior year, he would ask me to help him with the mandatory English classes he had to take. Maybe interpret a poem or edit a term paper he’d written. Often we ended up in a bar over the state line in Michigan, where the drinking age was 18. We’d discuss literature or philosophy and lust after the local lass.

Gary would always be game to go out when I’d call on weekends. Even better, he equally game for some new intellectual pursuit and I once dragged him out to see Fellini’s “Roma.” For weeks afterwards, we would walk around reenacting scenes from the film in fake Italian accents and get into shouting matches in bars pretending we were actors in the film.

On a couple of occasions, when his parents were away, we had small drinking parties at his house or at his deceased grandfather’s barn. One night we entered his grandfather’s house and went through all the papers, calendars, and objects left behind from a hardscrabble Methodist farm life. Another time, drunk out of our minds, we jumped around in the hay loft of the barn, and cat-walked along the beams about 15 feet above the floor. I don’t know how we managed to keep from falling and impaling ourselves on some piece of farm equipment.

Once, when his Gary’s parents were out of town, we stayed over at his house. In the living room sat an old console hi-fi record player. I went through the records on the shelf and discovered a boxed set of the Time Life “Great Works of Classical Music.” I noticed a copy of Handel’s Water Music. The piece was not totally unfamiliar to me since the great trumpet flourish from it, marked “Alla Hornpipe,” often got played on the local classical call-in request show. I was surprised however: Gary’s parents never talked about classical music. However, they owned classical records while my parents did not. I asked him if I could borrow the set, and Gary let me.

The fanfare turned out to be just one short movement out of twenty written. They have been arranged into three suites, and the “Alla Hornpipe” appears in Suite Number II in D major. Handel wrote the music for King George I as a way of displaying the monarch’s munificence to the populace. He was a very unpopular king, being German and speaking no English. The king listened from his royal barge while 50 musicians conducted by Handel performed on another. The pieces in the suites are based on popular dance forms of the time period-bourees, minuets, gavottes, etc.

Handel was a great innovator in music, not by breaking off in a new direction all his own, but by mastering, building upon and synthesizing the different musical traditions of the day. Born in Germany, he did his musical apprenticeship in Hamburg. In his twenties, he moved to Italy where he became close friends with Domenico Scarlatti. There he learned and quickly mastered the Italian style of opera. He was invited to London to premiere his opera “Rinaldo” and was invited to stay, eventually becoming the court composer. There he transformed English music and became one of the greatest composers of vocal music of all times.

Biography
Download MP3 of Watermusic or Buy CD at Amazon

George Frideric Handel: “Every Valley” from Messiah

During my senior year of high school in 1973, I began to make plans for college.  My friend, Paul M***, was a year older than I. He got accepted to the University of Chicago and after he left, I spent my senior year hunting for the kind of intellectual stimulation that he had offered. Once I went to visit him.

Now, I had gone to Chicago on many occasions before then. My aunt lived near Midway airport, and the town was full of museums to which our schools arranged field trips. Chicago had a huge Art Institute and museums left over from the World’s Fair: The Museum of Science and Industry, The Shedd Aquarium, and the Field Museum of Natural History. But my trip to see Paul was the first time I traveled to Chicago as an adult.

My friend Gary Endicott and I bundled ourselves into my mother’s little black Volkswagen beetle and I drove the 90 miles from my home one Friday afternoon. The campus sat on the South Side of Chicago, an area that the whites of Chicago had fled after the riots in 1968. It looked a little like a war zone, with run down brownstones, derelict cars, and huge pot holes in the streets. Paul lived in an apartment on the upper floor of one of these old buildings just off campus. As in all male college kitchens, the refrigerator was stuffed with the local cheap brew and little else.

Paul was a great host, though. He took us to a wonderful bookstore that had a huge poster of Lenin, which I thought was so daring coming as I did from a virulently anti-Communist environment. We ate lunch at a place called the Medici Restaurant and Art Gallery, which served excellent Chicago style deep-dish pizza. The walls were adorned by some local artist’s etchings–very classy for me. Paul also took us to the Oriental Art institute, which held extensive collections of Assyrian and Egyptian artifacts collected by U of C’s archaeologists earlier in the 20th century. One room had massive winged, bull-man gates from Babylon and another held huge Egyptian column/statues, painted in bright polychromes.

We also drove by Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Robie House” and visited a friend of Paul’s who cooked us an exotic lunch–Ramen, which had just been introduced in the market. On Sunday morning we went to a very ethnic bagel place and overheard a conversation between two middle-aged women, who were talking about how “Sammy” had just got “his tubes replaced.” We ended up our trip sitting on the shore of Lake Michigan drinking Chicago beer before driving home.

Paul had done of good job of being Virgil to my Dante. I came away knowing that this was the life for me and I would love being in college.

One of the best places he took me on this trip was to a record store in the Loop. In my town, the classical music section of most record stores was miniscule. Some department stores had better selections than the record stores in the malls. Sometimes, you had to hunt in three or four stores before you could find what you were looking for. For example, I bought my copy of The Barber of Seville in Robertson’s department store in South Bend, which for some odd reason always had a good collection of opera.

I was completely overwhelmed by the record store that Paul took me to. We parked in an ominous part of the Loop, which had a subterranean feeling because of the loud, El train that ran overhead and obscured day light. The store was in one of those narrow old two story shops that was about as long as half a city block. There was a huge neon sign in the shape of a 33 rpm LP in the window. Inside, the ground floor room shot all the way back and was lined on both sides with bin after bin of popular records. Paul pointed me to a stairway that led to the upper floor beside which hung a sign that said “Classical.” At the top of the stairs, I’m afraid my jaw dropped to see more classical albums that I could even imagine existed. The whole floor was given over to them. I seem to remember an entire wall devoted to boxed sets of operas. Stack of records sat on the floor with signs on them saying “Sale!” I felt like a kid in a candy shop. I didn’t know what to buy and certainly didn’t have enough money to buy everything I wanted.

Paul showed me a stack of records–a nice box set that contained highlights from the Messiah conducted by Thomas Beecham, with Jon Vickers singing tenor. He said it was a good buy, so I bought it. Now because of the overplaying of “Hallelujah Chorus” at Christmas, I normally would have passed up this record. But I’m glad I didn’t. It turns out to be full of wonderful choruses and arias, which don’t get the air play of “Hallelujah” but which are beautiful and stirring. The orchestra is wonderfully bright and full of baroque charm, reminiscent of the composer’s Water Music. The tenor’s voice lilts along and has wonderful trills and runs.

I love the simple words to this aria, Every Valley: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill laid low: the crooked strait and the rough places plain.”

And basically, that is how I felt-exalted-after having visited Paul and getting a taste of Chicago and college life under his guidance.

Biography

Download MP3s or Buy CD on Amazon

Georg Friederich Handel: Israel in Egypt

Yesterday, I wrote about Mark Z*******, a guy down the hall in the French House. He was majoring in Art History, and had a particular fascination for the Byzantine empire. You will remember that the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century and then moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople-the present-day Istanbul.

The Byzantine empire lasted over 1000 years and once stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Constantinople, sitting on a peninsula overlooking the Bosporous toward Anatolia, was a cosmopolitan gateway for Europe to Asia and vice versa. Unfortunately, that made it a prime target and, though the seat of a Christian Theocracy, Constantinople was conquered by the Crusaders and eventually fell to the Turks. During Byzantine era, art, architecture, and philosophy all flourished. The Christian liturgy was formalized in court and religious rituals. In Byzantium, modern harmony actually started to develop.

A few years ago, I attended a conference on Byzantine Eschatology (death rituals and views of the afterlife) at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. One of the presenters, Diane Touliatos from St. Louis University, delivered a paper in which she described how the three types of events around death–expressions of grief, consolation and joy in the defeat of enemies–turned into musical traditions. When someone died, back then, it was quite common for members of the families, especially women, to pull their hair, claw their cheeks and keen, that is wail and scream. This practiced became formalized and one could even rent groups of women to perform this function. Eventually their vocal expressions became chanted or sung.

Another tradition was the dirge or lamentation. These types of music grew out of the mass in which the priest would sing a phrase and the men would respond. That type of singing became the traditional Gregorian chants, which were not harmonic, because the different voices simply sang the same notes but at intervals of a full octave. Chants started to become harmonic, with the addition of a drone. Some men sang a single base note while the rest of the choir sung the lamentation. This type of singing was also employed for singing the Psalms.

At some point, someone started letting the professional wailers into the church to participate in the ritual mass for the dead. One can imagine the cacophony when that happened. Originally the church fathers tried to prevent the participation of the “keeners,” but eventually someone, the first choir master, no doubt got them all working together. Still, if you listen to this early harmony, it sounds very odd to our ears. Recently there have been some recordings of this type of music, and you can get an idea of the old harmonies in listening to that Bulgarian shout-singing, which became popular about 10 years ago.

Mark Z******* loved the Byzantine art and the ritualized melding of religion and authority implicit in a theocracy. He came from a devout polish family that lived near Chicago, and eventually left school and now paints icons and crucifixes as a sideline. Mark once told with great relish the story of one of his more outrageous local priests, who, during an Easter pageant, went overboard and actually brought sheep into church.

Yesterday, I said that Mark refused to listen to anything later than Renaissance music, but I was wrong. He stopped at Baroque. One of his favorite works was a piece by Handel, that I have never heard in its entirety, Israel in Egypt. This oratorio covers the story of Moses and his attempts to free the Jews from Pharaoh’s slavery. One would think it pretty serious, having been brought up watching Cecil B. DeMille’sTen Commandments with a stone faced Charleton Heston (Mister NRA nowadays) as a grizzled Moses. The oratorio, however, contains what I consider to be one of the funniest pieces of music ever written, and so I put it on the list of my favorites.

The aria is called “The land brought forth frogs.” It comes from the scene in the Bible where Moses calls on God to visit a number of plagues on Egypt to get Pharaoh to release the Jew. The music, is one of those thrilling baroque choruses that Handel was so good at, full of pomp and righteousness. The words, however, put us all in stitches, when Mark played it for us in his dorm room:

“The land brought forth frogs.
He gave their cattle over to the pestilence blotches and blains…”

To make it even more ridiculous, Handel gave this aria to the counter tenor, which is a man’s bass voice sung in falsetto. To hear a man singing the words, “blotches and blains” in a woman’s soprano range, was too camp for words.

Another screamingly funny aria was, “He spake the word.”  Used when Moses called up another plague which brought down “all manner of flies and lice.”

And these phrases became sort of a password for our group for a while. What can I say? You had to be there.

Haendel’s Biography

Download MP3 or buy CD of Israel In Egypt from Amazon

George Frideric Handel: Watermusic

During my senior year of high school, my best friend was named Gary Endicott. Gary had been on the swim team and he was a year older than I. He spent his freshman year going to the local community college, and so we hung out together. We had a number of common interests and were both terminally shy around girls. Thus we spent many a long, drunken hour commiserating with each other.

Gary’s father worked for a meat wholesaler and the family lived in a small house at the corner of a large farm that had belonged to Gary’s grandfather. Gary’s mother worked at home for the local photo studio hand colorizing high school portraits using tiny tubes of oil paints. It seemed like every time I went by the house, Gary’s mom would pull out the picture of some local beauty and say “You should ask her out.” Gary would groan, “Aw, mom,” and we’d invariably go out, get drunk and commiserate some more.

Mr. Endicott liked to make Martinis using Gilbey’s gin, and he’d often offer us one with a twinkle in his eye. He once told us that in high school he and his buddies had wired their shop teacher’s chair up to the electrical outlet. They’d gotten expelled for that. I liked Mr. Endicott: he smoked El Producto cigars, encouraged us to do so, and always had a joke to tell.

Gary was good in math, and because I was reading a lot of literature and philosophy my senior year, he would ask me to help him with the mandatory English classes he had to take. Maybe interpret a poem or edit a term paper he’d written. Often we ended up in a bar over the state line in Michigan, where the drinking age was 18. We’d discuss literature or philosophy and lust after the local lass.

Gary would always be game to go out when I’d call on weekends. Even better, he equally game for some new intellectual pursuit and I once dragged him out to see Fellini’s “Roma.” For weeks afterwards, we would walk around reenacting scenes from the film in fake Italian accents and get into shouting matches in bars pretending we were actors in the film.

On a couple of occasions, when his parents were away, we had small drinking parties at his house or at his deceased grandfather’s barn. One night we entered his grandfather’s house and went through all the papers, calendars, and objects left behind from a hardscrabble Methodist farm life. Another time, drunk out of our minds, we jumped around in the hay loft of the barn, and cat-walked along the beams about 15 feet above the floor. I don’t know how we managed to keep from falling and impaling ourselves on some piece of farm equipment.

Once, when his Gary’s parents were out of town, we stayed over at his house. In the living room sat an old console hi-fi record player. I went through the records on the shelf and discovered a boxed set of the Time Life “Great Works of Classical Music.” I noticed a copy of Handel’s Water Music. The piece was not totally unfamiliar to me since the great trumpet flourish from it, marked “Alla Hornpipe,” often got played on the local classical call-in request show. I was surprised however: Gary’s parents never talked about classical music. However, they owned classical records while my parents did not. I asked him if I could borrow the set, and Gary let me.

The fanfare turned out to be just one short movement out of twenty written. They have been arranged into three suites, and the “Alla Hornpipe” appears in Suite Number II in D major. Handel wrote the music for King George I as a way of displaying the monarch’s munificence to the populace. He was a very unpopular king, being German and speaking no English. The king listened from his royal barge while 50 musicians conducted by Handel performed on another. The pieces in the suites are based on popular dance forms of the time period-bourees, minuets, gavottes, etc.

Handel was a great innovator in music, not by breaking off in a new direction all his own, but by mastering, building upon and synthesizing the different musical traditions of the day. Born in Germany, he did his musical apprenticeship in Hamburg. In his twenties, he moved to Italy where he became close friends with Domenico Scarlatti. There he learned and quickly mastered the Italian style of opera. He was invited to London to premiere his opera “Rinaldo” and was invited to stay, eventually becoming the court composer. There he transformed English music and became one of the greatest composers of vocal music of all times.

Biography
Download MP3 of Watermusic or Buy CD at Amazon

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