September 16, birthday of Nadia Boulanger

Since July, I have been concentrating solely on female composers.  You can read about that in my post from July 19.  If I can’t find one born on the calendar day, I won’t post.  On with today’s composer.

Nadia Boulanger is probably the greatest music educator who ever lived. Among her pupils:

Her piece below was written in 1912 some 20 years before Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini.” Let me know if you hear any similarities.

Fantaisie pour piano et orchestre

August 31, birthday of Alma Mahler

Since July, I have been concentrating solely on female composers.  You can read about that in my post from July 19.  If I can’t find one born on the calendar day, I won’t post.  On with today’s composer.

Alma Maria Mahler Gropius Werfel (born Alma Maria Schindler 1879 – 1964) was born to a famous Austrian painter, and therefore grew up at the time when Vienna was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire and was awash in all the arts during a time of great upheavals in Western culture, not the least of was the revolution in classical music. She had relationships with Gustav Klimt and other artists or the time, and eventually married Gustav Mahler. Alma herself was classically trained in piano and began composing at an early age. Gustav, however, insisted she stop composing and devote herself to him, his music, and raising the family. This led to her falling into a state of depression (and had an affair with Walter Gropius of Bahaus–no not the musical group–fame) which Sigmund Freud said could be cured by Gustav allowing her to compose again. Which he did, even getting her songs into print by his publisher. After Mahler died, she had an affair with Oscar Kokoschka and then married Gropius, who eventually was sent to fight in WWI. She in 1917 then took up with a writer named Franz Werfel whom she married after divorcing Gropius in 1920. When Hitler took over Austria in 1938, the couple, being Jewish, fled to Southern France. When Hitler invaded France, they fled on foot over the Pyrenees, and eventually able to book passage on a ship to the US. They ended up in LA where Werfel had a successful career. After Werfel died in 1946, she moved to NYC and became a cultural icon (is there a school for that) and was worshiped by Leonard Bernstein, champion of Mahler’s works.

Complete Songs

July 7, birthday of Gustav Mahler and Gian Carlo Menotti

I’ve written about this Mahler piece before, and it still grips me every time I hear it. Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911)
Third Symphony : 4th movement

Frightfully, I know very little about Gian Carlo Menotti (1911–2007) save that he was the life partner of Samuel Barber and founded the annual music festival in Spoletto.

Menotti’s Piano Concerto “Violin Concerto” (1.Mov.)

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?

Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

One of the first times I listened to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, (“Song of the Earth”) was around November 1975 and I was a junior in college. The song from it that I’ve chosen today is called “A Lonely on in Autumn,” but I’ve also included a more upbeat song, “Of Youth,” below with a description of when I first heard this work.

Between 1908-1909, Mahler wrote this six-movement symphony for voices around a selection of seven Chinese poems from a collection that was published around the time period. Having been through a three major life events–being fired as director of an opera, the death of his daughter, and his diagnosis of a heart defect–the poems spoke to him about the beauty and transient nature of life.

Some of the orchestral work reminds me a bit of Mahler’s First Symphony and Songs of a Wayfarer. And writers have noted that these pieces, coming at the end of Mahler’s life, are a perfect melding of his skills of a composer of both symphonic and vocal music.

The poems also reflect Mahler’s fascination with death, which comes through in the titles of four of the six songs: “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow,” “The Solitary in Autumn,” “The Drunkard in Spring,” and “The Farewell.” He does include happier sounding songs, “Of Youth” and “Of Beauty.” “Of Beauty” paints a vivid picture of young girls picking flowers by the water’s edge. It has a haunting feeling to it. “Of Youth” is more upbeat and has this memorable line: “Friends, handsomely clad, drink and chatter.”

The last song, “Der Abschied” (The Farewell), narrates the poets saying good bye to this life and friends and making ready to die. The music varies from very sparse single instrument-harp, celste, mandolin-accompanying the solo contralto voice, to lush, post-impressionistic swells full of Germanic Romanticism. It would be a bit over the top, were it not for the serene ending, which accompanies the words that depict the cyclic nature of life:

My heart is serene and awaits its final hour.
The well-loved earth everywhere
Blooms in spring and grows green anew.
Everywhere and always the horizon glimmers in blue…

Download MP3s or buy CD of Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

A Christmas Pudding
by Kurt Nemes

In November of 1975, Thom Klem announced that his plum pudding was ready to steam. A few months before, Thom, an afficianado of just about everything–art, music, food, literature and film–decided to make a plum pudding, and what an elaborate and chthonian mixture he had produced!  He then arranged to hold a pre-Thanksgiving dinner at the house of David T*, who had once lived in my dorm and who still hung out with our artsy-campy clique. The dinner would take place on a Saturday, two weekends before Thanksgiving.

Thom invited me to go with him the day of the dinner to help him prepare the pudding. David would be away and Thom wanted some company. I agreed and then he told me I had to go early in the morning. When I asked why, he said that he had to steam the pudding for over six hours. I was incredulous. How could it take so long. “That’s what the recipe says. It’s a really dense mass and steam cooks it while keeping it moist.”

The Friday before the dinner, we had a drunken rave up. I don’t remember anything about the party, probably because I drank to excess, but there had to be one because I recall having a hangover when I went with Thom the next morning to start preparing the pudding. Though it started out a bit rough, it turned out to be quite a pleasant day. It was the first of a number of occasions in I acted like a kind of apprentice while Thom taught me how to cook.

On our way to David’s house, Thom said we had to stop off at the liquor store. He said he had to buy a bottle of stout. “What for?” I asked. “You mix it in before steaming the pudding.” I had never had stout before, but I seem to remember having read about it in a story in James Joyce’s The Dubliners. The name conjured up for me men sitting in a smoky room, before a fire on a cold, rainy autumn evening talking about politics.

When we got to the house, David was stuffing the turkey. He was going out for the day, and told us to put it in later in the afternoon. We set about getting the pudding ready.

In addition to specifying the stout, Thom’s Larousse Gastronomique said to moisten the pudding with four eggs. He stirred this dark, heady-smelling mixture around and then tipped it out into a round bowl. In England, he said, they have special pudding basins with tight fitting lids. Thom improvised a cover using a saucepan lid which he sealed tight by wrapping a tea towel around its perimeter. He then placed the basin in a big covered pot partially filled with boiling water.

We sat down and spent the afternoon drinking the rest of the stout, listening to music and discussing everything under the sun. We listened to Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.”  Every so often, Thom would go over, check the pudding and add a little more water to the pot. Later we put the turkey in the oven and the smell of roasting fowl started to waft through the house. It was a cold November afternoon, and the moisture from the pudding steamed up the window and made us feel all warm and cozy.

Eventually, people started to arrive-Cynthia, Mark, Michael, Linda, Liz and her boyfriend, recently returned from France, John. They started preparing various dishes–sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cranberry relish, salads and such. The wine started flowing, people started to listen to their favorite music.

By the time we ate, everyone was in a pretty mellow mood. Near the end of the meal, Thom and I went to the kitchen to turn out the pudding and make the hard sauce. For this he combined butter, sugar and rum, which he whipped together. He heated a bit of whiskey, carried the pudding to the dining room, poured the whiskey over the dessert, and I lit it on fire. Eerie blue flames leapt about in the darkened room and everyone clapped as he set it on the table. Each mouthful exploded in a holographic picture of the entirety of British culture. Yes, a good time was had by all and to this day, every plum pudding and Christmas fruitcake reminds me of that wonderful ritual that Thom created for us that day.

Here’s a more uplifting song from “Das Lied,” entitled “Von der Jungend” (Of Youth).  The words are here and remind me of that youthful Thanksgiving in 1975.

Gustav Mahler: Songs of a Wayfarer

After spending the summer of 1975 working in a lamp factory, I was very happy to return to the French House. A few new people moved into the dorm, but most of the artsy-campy people who gravitated to Mark Z**’s room returned, and that provided a ready-made social network that I could just step right into.

During the summer, I had met up with Thom Klem, who belonged to Mark’s coterie, and who happened to live fairly near me in South Bend, Indiana. When we returned to Indiana University, we started spending more and more time together, and he eventually became my best friend. There were several reasons for this. First, Thom was a voracious reader, and he especially like contemporary French writers. Since I was majoring in French, he and I had a lot to talk about and he introduced me to the works of Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre and existential philosophy. Second, Thom and I had both come from Catholic families, and each of us had fallen away from the faith. Still, Catholicism had instilled enough guilt and moral sense in us that we became obsessed with finding a moral and ethical system that would show us the right way to behave while at the same time being free from religious dogma. Existentialism fulfilled part of that role. Third, since Thom was a Chinese major, he introduced me to a number of concepts from Eastern philosophy–Buddhism and Taoism–and these resonated with me as well. Finally, we both loved to cook, and Thom was a was a gourmet and gourmand. He approached cooking in a methodical and scholarly way.

Thom had had lived in France and Taiwan, so he tended to focus on recreating dishes from those cuisines, but really he would try anything that struck his fancy. One of the first times I saw him after we got back to college, he told me he was reading Boswell’s The life of Samuel Johnson. A few weeks later he announced that he was going to start making a Christmas plum pudding. “But it’s not Christmas,” I said. Then he told me that it took so long to make that even though it was September it might not be done. There was a challenge for him. What astounded me more is that the recipe he used came from Larousse Gastronomique the big blue bible of French cooking. He had found an edition in English, which of course was geared for British cooks and therefore contained some recipes from the United Kingdom. He spent the next few days assembling the ingredients–a pound of suet; 5 ½ cups breadcrumbs; 2 ½ cups of flour; ¾ cups Malaga raisins; 1 ¼ cups of currents; 1 cup sultana raisins; ¼ pound candied citron; ¼ pound candied orange peel; ½ cap stoned prunes; 2 cups peeled and grated cooking apples; 1 cup blanched, chopped almonds; 1 ½ cup brown sugar; the grated rind and juice of one orange and one lemon; 4 whole eggs; 3 tablespoons of mixed spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger; 4 cups of rum; and 1 2/3 teaspoons of salt. After assembling all this into a chthonic mass, he added ¼ of the rum. From then on, he had to stir it every few days and add another 4 teaspoons of rum.

Another time, Thom became obsessed with having a glass of warm milk with a dash of vanilla before going to bed. He read up on vanilla and discovered that it was an extract of the fermented seed from a South American orchid. On another occasion, he decided he liked red vermouth. He systematically started buying and sampling different brands, before settling on the one he wanted. Thom liked the fact that I shared his enthusiasm for different tastes. Since he came from a fairly affluent family, he could afford to indulge himself so I benefited by receiving a culinary education at a cut rate.

It may sound a bit odd, but knowing Thom and our fascination with food brought together a lot of different elements that formed the way I think. I mentioned our quest for finding a personal ethic and Buddhism and existentialism. Buddhism and Taoism focus on finding the right way of living that is in harmony with nature, they make you concentrate on the “here and now.” Nowadays the term used is “mindfulness” and it means being aware and open to the spiritual and sacred in the present tense and in every day acts. You can spend years working to become a master of cooking–studying smells, tastes, vegetables, nutrition, techniques, implements–so that when you cook, it becomes a meditative act in which you bring together all the years of discipline to take the ingredients at hand and create a satisfying and nutritious meal that feeds the body and soul.

Partaking of food to me therefore has become a sacrament. And when I prepare it for others, to me it becomes an act of love and devotion. Call me weird if you wish.

Thom was not as obsessed with Western classical music as I was, but he appreciated it just the same. His passion in music ran to what back then was the precursor to today’s “World Music.” He bought recordings of flamenco music, Arabic music, French chansons, Balinesian Gamelan, Chinese opera and anything else he could find. Looking back, I think it was he who first told me about Bach’s “Coffee Cantata.” How fitting.

The “Songs of the Wayfarer” cycle contain four poems Mahler which Mahler wrote.  They are scored for baritone voice and full orchestra, though they are also sometimes sung by women.  Mahler wrote them after an failed romance with a soprano when he was a conductor in Kassel, Germany in the 1880s.   They deal with a man coming to terms with the loss of his beloved to another man.  It’s full of Romantic emotions, the kind I myself felt in the French house, trying to work out who I was, finding a soul mate, and wanting to become an artist.  The four songs resemble the stages Kubler-Ross wrote about a century later, going from anger and despair to acceptance.

The second poem,”Ging heut Morgen ubers Feld” means “I went this morning over the field.”  It is a happy melody and matches the sentiments of the poem, in which the singer extols the wonders of nature as he walks through a field on a morning noticing the dew on the grass and the songs of birds.  The melody comes out of Mahler’s First Symphony and is so upbeat and refreshing.  Although at the end, the narrator realizes he will no longer be able to bloom with his love gone.

I don’t remember whether Klem and I ever listened to Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer but it is another piece that I first heard at the French House. It seems fitting to use it to remember Thom, who died of AIDS in the early 1990s. If anyone way a wayfarer–discovering the wonder of nature and the cultural contributions of mankind–it was Thom.

Buy Mahler: Songs of a Wayfarer; Kindertotenlieder; Rückert-Lieder

Mahler, Gustav: Symphony Number 1 in D

By the end of the first semester of my sophomore year in college in 1974, I had pretty much had it with my dorm. Nowadays, I recognize that my own aloofness had a large role to play in this. Even I have a tendency to label as a nerd someone who lives too much in an effete, overly intellectual world, cut off from others. At the same time, I believe it was Henry Steel Commager who first wrote about the anti-intellectual streak in us Americans. And I can’t honestly say that my fellow dorm mates would have voted me Mr. Congeniality.

Take Saturday nights. That was a bigger party night than Fridays, since you didn’t have classes to get in the way of your spending the day stoned, finding where the good parties would be, or buying booze for your own bash. I usually spent the day in the library and would come home to unwind preferably with a martini. If I wanted to be gregarious, I’d put on some classical piece and magnanimously open my door as an invitation to my fellow dorm mates to come in for a chat. One such night as I sat, maybe listening to today’s piece, the guys down the hall were having a terrific rave-up. On a trip to the communal toilet, I ran into one of the guys who, drunk, lit into me with a salvo of invectives.

“You’re so superior! You think you’re better than anyone else. You never join in.”

I was non-plussed. I never actively harbored any grudges against them as people; I just got mad at them when they interfered with my sleep. I tried to explain to him that I harbored him no ill-will, indeed that I thought he and his chums were quite likeable and only wished him well. He blinked and his friends dragged him away.

Later that evening back in my room, one of them, noted for his clownish drunken behavior, stumbled down the corridor and seeing my open door stopped and fell flat on his face in my doorway. His friends stood in the hallway laughing. He turned his face skyward to me and said “Hi Kurt!” and started to go green. “Hey, get him out of here!” I yelled to them. “He’s going to puke!” but it was too late, and he spilled the contents of his stomach on my carpet.

So you can imagine how excited I was shortly thereafter, when my French teacher, Starr, told me about a dorm called the French House. It was situated in an old part of campus dedicated to graduate dorms, and like the Spanish, Russian, German houses it was a place where you were supposed only to speak a foreign language.

I went along and paid a visit to the dorm, which was a long, low two-story edifice built during the Second World War for G.I.s studying languages. The language houses sat in a small meadow, clustered around a small creek, and it had a nice pastoral feeling about it. You had to apply, and Starr recommended me, so I got an interview with the admission board. I didn’t speak French very well, which they soon noticed, so they asked me why I wanted to live there. That was easy–I couldn’t afford a junior year abroad, so I wanted to live there to learn French. They accepted me, and that made living in my hi-rise dorm for the rest of the semester bearable.

Now thinking back on the pastoral setting of the French house, Mahler’s Symphony Number 1 in D seems kind of fitting. Written between Mahler’s 24 and 28th years, it is an astoundingly mature work, even if he manages to weave in some very naïve themes. This work for me has strong natural associations. Perhaps it is the use of a two-note, cuckoo motive in the first movement or the other twiddly bits in that movement that make me think of a walk in the woods or a sunny meadow. Mahler entitled the first movement, “Spring without End,” which means he was trying to evoke the wonder of nature in his musical images.

To me the entire symphony is full of surprises. In the fourth movement he builds an entire orchestral fugue around the theme, “Frere Jacques. In the third movement, he uses the familiar theme, “Three Blind Mice,” and later he launches off into a march led by a clarinet that sounds a bit like a Klezmer band. He also borrows from himself, using a theme in the first movement from his own “Songs of a Wayfarer.” The last movement sometimes seems a bit over the top in its full blown, almost hyper Romanticism. Hey, but who isn’t full of swagger in their late teens and early twenties? From what I’ve said above, you know I can’t go pointing any fingers.

Mahler Biography

Download MP3s or buy CD of Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major

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