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.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Even people who hate classical music would probably recognize Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. American advertisers have used it to hawk just about any product from Disneyworld to feminine hygiene deodorants. It conveys, I guess, an “olde worlde” charm, which Americans seem to lap up. This seems paradoxical since Americans also are so hell-bent on tearing down any building more than a few years old. If you really hit it big and want to show your friends that you have arrived, throw a big party and hire a string quartet, who probably can’t make a full-time living playing music, to saw away in the corner on “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” while your guests suck down champagne and canapés. It’s the American dream–you can buy anything, even culture.

The first time I listened to it seriously was at the French House in 1975. In my mind, I associate “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” with a girl named Linda P****. Linda was one of the French House hangers-on, who had a mane of red hair and played the string bass. She had a breathy, delicate way of speaking, which she would employ when talking passionately, as she often did, about some piece of music or book she was reading in her comparative literature class. Like all musicians, Linda had a certain facility for languages, and in addition to French, she was taking German. As I mentioned on another day, she also loved nature and was fond of identifying the various shrubs and trees. One day she and I were walking to the cafeteria, maybe talking about Mozart, or “Faust”, which she was reading, or plants. On the way we passed a huge conifer, which might have been a cypress, a larch or a Norwegian pine. I said to her, “How would you call that tree?” She quipped in her cutest voice, “Neine Kleine” (no little.) Which in context was a neat little pun.

“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” means “A Little Night Music” which is what the word, serenade, means. Serenades were for singing at night under the window of one’s beloved. I wonder whether Mozart had a particular woman in mind when he composed it. In form, a serenade consists of several minuets, or dances pieces. Mozart opens his with an exuberant Allegro, which runs along at a breathtaking clip. In the second movement, he switches to a Romance, whose sweetness could indicate the passions released by a relationship. Next Mozart brings in a stately minuet, which he alternates with a melody played by a trio. The finale, in a bouree rhythm, returns to the dynamic and joyful energy of the first movement.

Mozart wrote this serenade at the ripe old age of 31. It’s catalogued as his 525th work. Some composers are known for a single work. Had Mozart only written “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” his reputation would have been assured. But think scores of his other memorable works–symphonies, operas, quartets, concertos–and you realize were talking genius the size of a mountain here.

Download MP3 of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “Der Holle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” from Die Zauberflote

We folks who lived in the French House at Indiana University in 1975 were addicted to foreign films. Indiana University had a very good film studies program, and you could buy passes to the films that were shown for the various courses. One semester they taught Italian neo-realism and featured Felinni, Pasolini, Antonioni, De Sica and Rosselini. Another semester, the Germans were covered by Murnau, Stronheim, Wenders, and Herzog. This was just around the time that Structuralism was starting to gain ground in academic circles, and in one course they deconstructed the films of the Americans John Ford, Nicholas Ray, and Sammy Fuller. By far the most important international filmmaker of the time, however, was Igmar Bergman, and showings of his films were always packed.

I had seen Bergman’s Cries and Whispers with some high school pals the year before and its strong emotions and lush sensuality juxtaposed with images of death affected me deeply. Bergman’s films were all like that.  Sometimes his symbolism was so palpable–like when Death appears in The Seventh Seal and plays chess with the Knight–that you kind of felt bludgeoned by it. Though I wouldn’t call Bergman a happy camper, when you’re an adolescent and caught up in existential angst, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, so we all lapped his films up in the French House.

So imagine our surprise when we found out that Bergman had filmed Mozart’s opera, Die Zauberflote. We wondered what kind of dark spin he would put on this otherwise upbeat and engaging opera. Bergman seemed to play it straight. He starts out showing a group of people listening to the overture in a small theatre. When cast appears, he makes them appear quaint, with kind of Peter Pan costumes and almost tacky props. Little by little though, he lets the magic take over and the production becomes more and more fantastic and artful. Maybe that was the Bergman’s goal: to destroy Brecht’s notion that the audience should never give itself over completely to a play and remember that it is not reality. Despite all attempts to prevent oneself from willingly suspending disbelief, the whole purpose of art is to do just that. That is to connect at a more visceral than intellectual level and change a person’s reality for a time being in order to perceive a different reality (maybe that of the Other).

This opera got a lot of play in the French House. Cynthia (about whom I wrote with regards to a piece by Purcell), the resident diva, listened to it quite a bit and the aria entitled “Der Holle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (Hell’s vengeance seethes in my heart) became one of her favorites. I have never asked a soprano, but to me it seems the most demanding aria ever written.

The Queen of the Night sings this aria and in it, she tells her daughter to murder the Queen’s enemy, Sarastro. The soprano must sing at a break neck speed, and also express the passion of hate. For Mozart, who penned some of the most beautifully sweet music, this aria expresses a depth of emotion sometimes absent in his work. But he cannot resist making it one of the most beautiful arias ever written as well. At the most passionate part, the soprano slips up to an incredibly high range and vocalizes a tune that almost sounds like a bird, it is so high and rapid. Later she trills and runs glissandi up and down in the most fluid of ways. The effect sends chills down one’s spine.

We all became smitten with the aria at the French House. After a while, it became almost a joke. Most everyone, men and women, tried singing along with it at one time or other. Years later as a father, I bought a CD of the opera and played it for my daughters. The youngest, Simone, age 7 at the time, walked around for a few days singing the Queen of the Nigh aria. To me that kind of sums up the Magic of Die Zauberflote.

Download MP3s or buy CD of Mozart’s <i> Die Zauberflöte</i> from Amazon

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Rondo Alla Turca from Sonata in A, K.331

By now you know that I love meticulous music that has a driving rhythm. Such pieces energize me.  And the Rondo Alla Turca fits the bill.  Nothing like Mozart’s to get your juices flowing.  

The Rondo is actually the third movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A, K. 331. The title refers to the 18th century vogue for things from Eurasia, especially Turkey and Persia. I believe this was the time of Germany’s first attempt at empire building and they spent a good deal of time in Anatolia, digging up and looting ancient archeological sites, like Troy and Pergamon, and bringing them back to Europe. France had been influenced in the 1600s by Montesquieu, whose “Lettres Persanes,” a mock set of letters by an imaginary Perdsian Prince visiting Paris, was a scathing critique of modern society. Mozart employed exotic themes and even wrote an opera entitled The Abduction from the Seraglio.

The piece starts out with a quaint little tune that’s played in small snatches. From there it blossoms into an energetic dance played loud and with gusto. He then takes the tune and improvises on it running it up and down the scale, changing the key, and alternating back and forth between quiet and loud. You know the piece: it’s been used in any number of films whenever they want to show energy or motion because it has a “traveling” feel to it.

I don’t remember the first time I heard it, but I know it was when I was a small child. Being the last of five kids, I somehow found myself occupying my spare time listening to music on a small record player we had. My parents had lots of old 78 rpm records, which were collectors items in the 1960s when I was a boy, having given way to long playing stereo 33 rpm vinyl. Perhaps Rondo was on one of those disks. I do know that even hearing it today, it still evokes that sense of joy and happiness that children have such an easy ability to access.

Download MP3 or Buy CD at Amazon

Mozart Biography

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony Number 41 in C-Major “Jupiter”

“A phenomenon like Mozart always constitutes a miracle that defies all explanation. But how could divinity find time to make miracles if it didn’t conduct its research by creating from time to time extraordinary individuals whom we admire and can not understand?” Goethe

Mozart wrote the Symphony Number 41 in C-Major in 1788, just three years before his death and in an outburst of energy that saw him also writing it along with the 39th and 40thin a period of three weeks.

On the sleeve of my old vinyl recording, conducted by Karl Bohm, the anonymous notes describe the first movement thus:

“The masculine, self-confident first motive and its gentle, feminine continuation which make up the principal subject are representative in their duality of the mastery of this Symphony, in whose classically clear structure there is a place for both strength and lyricism, for “gallant” and learned elements–truly a concluding work of Olympian greatness!”

I used to read this quote and laugh. There certainly are two “flavors” to the first movement between which the orchestra moves. However, the author calling one masculine, strong and gallant, the other feminine, lyrical, and “learned” seemed a bit beyond the pale. Of course, now that I study Tai Chi, which is based on the principal of Yin and Yang, I can see how these two elements are woven in an out of each other in a perfectly balanced way. I’m just not sure that I want to call one “Hoss” and the other “Betty.” And why is “learned” feminine and not “strength?” Referring to the Olympian greatness also smacks a bit too much of Germanic scholasticism.

I don’t want to criticize too much fellow musical journalists. What I do want to say is that Mozart’s genius can be proved just by looking at his prolific output during the year 1788. In that one year, he wrote symphonies number 39, 40, and 41, the 26th piano concerto, and numerous dances, songs and minuets.

Let’s see, he was 32 at the time he wrote the Symphony Number 41, and from all accounts this was a difficult time period for him. In June, Mozart’s fourth child, Theresia, died of intestinal cramps. Despite the unhappiness in his life at this time, the 41st was one of the most ebullient symphonies he wrote. It stands in contrast with to the 40th, in which you hear more struggle. The 41st just soars!

Nowadays, all many of us have to do is break a fingernail and it spoils our whole day. Maybe the lesson Mozart was channeling from divinity was that art is a way of dealing with the events that life sends our ways. Sure you can be a victim when something bad happens, or you can create something beautiful that will last for centuries.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony Number 40 in G-Minor

What’s not to like?

Sorry, I don’t mean to be so cavalier, but Mozart’s music sometimes strikes me that way. It lilts along so effortlessly. You can imagine that that’s what’s playing right now on the 24-hour all hits classical music station in heaven. Again, no blasphemy intended there. I think back to the play, Amadeus in which Salieri transcribes Mozart’s Requiem. Salieri describes Mozart as almost channeling the music straight from God.

The Symphony Number 40 was another piece that the M*** family introduced me to in high school, and I became so smitten with it that I had to have a copy of it. They suggested one on the Deutsche Grammophon label, conducted by Karl Böhm. He and Von Karajan were the two heavies on that label during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Usually Karajan got the Beethoven and Böhm did the Mozart.

Mozart wrote this symphony along with the 39th and 41st during the summer of 1788, completing all three in a span of six weeks. The first movement contains a restless melody, which sounds a bit dark, perhaps because of the minor key. A lovely serenade graces the second movement, which retains some of the darkness of the first movement. The third starts out with more of the anguished feelings, but then a nice quiet uplifting melody, punctuated by the flutes and horns, takes over for a while. You think you’re home free for a while, but then the anguish of the beginning returns. The feeling of a storm or some great struggle starts off the finale, which is full of drama. It stops midway through, a little fugue then starts off which recaps the main theme, but then it leads to a full resolution. At the end, you have the feeling that you just went through some great emotional struggle, and though you came out alive, you bear a few scars for it.

Here’s the full thing with Harnancourt conducting, about twice as fast as Bohm.

Mozart: Symphony Number 35, in D Major, “Haffner”

When I think back to my high school days, it is with a sense of wonder. For me, it was a time filled with turbulence: as hormones coursed through my body I had to establish an identity, my place in the social, academic, and athletic pecking orders, while assimilating new ideas, and coming of legal age. The Vietnam War still raged on and the threat of the draft hung over the heads of all us young men.Until then, I had played the class clown, a happy-go-lucky, pudgy kid with acne.

In high school, however, I became aware of “culture” embodied in literature, art, and music. My parent saw this as puzzling. “What happened to our happy son?” they said. In all fairness to them, I did change radically, especially as I began to spend more and more time in the company of the M* family, whom I wrote earlier on this blog. For those of you J.D. Salinger fans, to me the M*s resembled the Glass family in that author’s books Franney and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenter. All five M* children had high SAT scores, excelling in both math and English. But what you noticed most about them was how gosh-darned articulate they were. At the same time, because of the father’s interest in Thurber and S.J. Pearlman, they all had a great sense of humor and could wise crack and lampoon with the best of them.

We all became comrades in the struggle against the sports and glamour cliques at school. We also had another bond because of our Eastern European backgrounds—them Polish, me Hungarian. But what I remember most about them is the music. Yesterday I wrote about how some parents push their kids to try to turn them into prodigies. The M* family had much too much taste to do that. They whole family just loved being cultured. But that makes them sound snobby, which they weren’t. Some gourmet once said comparing the French and American palate: “Americans eat to live; the French live to eat.” Some people user their brains to live. The M* family lived to use their brains.

Some families follow sport and athletes religiously. The M* family followed not only classical music, but the careers of the performers as well. They introduced me to such names as Rubenstein, Heifitz, Callas, Toscanini, Von Karajan, Bohm, and Reiner. One of their favorite performers was the Spanish-born cellist, Pablo Casals

A refugee from Spain after Franco seized power and annexed Catalonia, Casals became the World’s greatest cellist (according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music). In his later years, he became a noted conductor, spending summers leading the Marlboro Symphony orchestra. I own a number of his recordings both as a conductor and a performer. Some people didn’t like his performances, because he would become so engrossed in the music that he used to moan along with them. Certain audience members found this distracting. One of my LPs included a recording of one of his rehearsals in which his moans almost hit a fervid pitch. Thank god that in the final recording the engineers turned off his microphone.

The first album with Casals conducting that I bought on the suggestion of the M*s was Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony Number 35. If you didn’t know anything about classical music but wanted to ease into IT, I can’t think of a better piece to start with. I think it is a “perfect” piece of music. Not too long. Not too short. Two nice, pensive, emotive movements sandwiched between quick, upbeat ones. I particularly love the third movement, the menuetto, which has a beautiful slow melody that would make anyone moan.

Mozart wrote the “Haffner” when he was just 26, and penned another six symphonies before he died. The more I think of his life, the more it astounds me. Nowadays, in our self-absorbed culture, we tend to think children are cute when they act grown-up and—as my British ex-wife, Judy called it—”cheeky.” On the other hand, the news is full of stories about teen gangs, drug use, prostitution, and other scary behaviors. Sitcoms are full of such grotesqueries, and few show children acting in a noble or intelligent way. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they also showed the 99% of kids who are in the middle? Or at least a few who participated in some kind of ennobling activity.

I firmly believe that given the right stimulation, education and support, any child can grow up to accomplish great things.  It’s odd that in developing countries the brainpower of children is wasted because of starvation, disease, neglect, and overpopulation.  In the developed countries, we’re wasting the brainpower of children through lack of education, leadership, and by providing role models that lead to self-destructive and wasteful lives.  What a tragic waste of talent, which, if applied correctly could improve the lives of people the world over and perhaps save us from ourselves.

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