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.

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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.

Peter Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major

This wonderful violin concerto by Tchaikowsky is considered equal to the great ones of Beethoven and Brahms.  It’s supposedly technically difficult, which might be one of the reasons a contemporary critic, Eduard Hanslick, lambasted the Violin Concerto as a musical composition “whose stink one can hear.  Written during the period after he broke up with this wife, Tchaikowsky originally dedicated it to the violinist,  Iosif Kotek, with whom the composer had an intense relationship.  His homosexuality was something he wrestled with and even called his “shameful vice,” and the attitude of the time caused him to get married twice, both of which marriages ended badly.  Still this period produced this masterpiece, his opera Eugene Onegin, and his Fourth Symphony.  Gives one cause to think about what his life might have been like had gay marriage been legal at the time.

This piece has nothing to do with my entry, today, which describes my visit to Barcelona in 1977, with two friends, Chris and Inge, and about whom I’ve written in earlier posts.

Holy Week in Barcelona (1977)

After Inge left, Chris and I explored Barcelona as we tried to figure out what she had meant to us. Chris hadn’t gotten too emotionally bound up in her. A tall, ebullient, Nordic-American with strawberry blond hair and blue eyes, he’d spent the last several months jumping from bed to bed across most of Europe. He loved life and the sexual liberation he’d found in Europe and was happy now to be in Spain, a country with a warmer climate and striking people. Chris talked about his adventures openly. Perhaps this is what attracted women to him—they knew he’d be an enthusiastic lover and would not hang around moping afterward.

Which is the kind of person I was—a moper. I had invested a lot of emotional energy trying to woo Inge and her departure to Majorca left me hurt and feeling abandoned. Still, Chris and I had a lot of fun together. We decided to spend the rest of the week in Barcelona, after which I’d return to Paris by train and he’d go south to Valencia.

It was Holy Week, and as the city prepared for Easter, things quietened down and the city seemed to take on a more spiritual feeling. On Maunday Thursday, we set out to visit the cathedral, which lay in the medieval part of the city. Until then, we’d spent most of our time near the port and in the lower class, workers’ parts of town. The area around the cathedral was called the Gothic Quarter and had a totally different feel to it. It rose up from the Ramblas on a low hill. The streets were narrower and I seemed to remember the buildings being stucco and half-timbered, with elaborate leaded glass windows. As we neared the center of the quarter, we noted more and more people, dressed in black streaming in that direction. I think we stopped somewhere for a coffee and as we stood getting our bearings, a frail, shrunken old Spanish widow, dressed in a long black coat and holding a missal, shuffled by. I stared at her for a moment—from under her coat, two little toothpick-thin bowed legs shifted back and forth. She looked a bit like an automaton—her eyes seemed kind of glassy, like some force was pulling her in the direction of the cathedral.

After a while, Chris and I started off the way the woman had gone. The street ran under the wooden loges and covered passageways that connected the buildings on either side. The way was paved with tuffa, the volcanic rock of the Mediterranean region, and it was worn smooth by the feet of the pilgrims over the centuries. We turned a corner and the street started to rise more steeply. I looked up and there was the little black widow, still shuffling along, missal in her hand. We were about 20 feet behind her when she suddenly slipped on the smooth pavement and fell flat on her face. What was odd, though, was that her little stick legs continued to shuffle back and forth as she lay there. She looked a bit like a beetle that had been flipped over on its back, its legs flailing to try to right itself. Chris and I ran to help her up. When we got her back on her feet, she did not even acknowledge up, but instantly continued on her way to the cathedral.

The square in front of the cathedral was filled with people carrying candles and when we went in, the church was ablaze with them as well. Since I had lived in Paris, for me Notre Dame was the cathedral by which I measured all others. So, snobbishly, I didn’t think so much of the place. It seemed smaller and more morose than Notre Dame. One thing that struck me, however, was how much more the Spaniards worshipped the Madonna than the French. In a little side chapel, there was a shrine to the Virgin Mary. A statue of her stood behind a large iron grill-work door, which was firmly locked. All over the bars, people had hung votive offerings, the first time I’d ever seen this practice. With bright red ribbons, they had tied little silver images of arms, legs, eyes, and stomachs with a prayer to the Virgin to heal that afflicted body part.

By this time in my life, I had revolted against the Catholic church, but there was always something that drew me to the mystery and the rituals of the religion of my youth. There was something touching about these little votive offerings. They demonstrated a faith—a belief they had a direct relationship to God. There was no cleric middle-man, in terms of a religious authority. Back then, I thought this demonstrated weakness—I was an existentialist, after all. I believed in the teachings of Jean-Paul Sartre who said: “you are what you do,” and I felt that anyone could do anything. A good humanist, I believed man was the measure of all things and that God was irrelevant. Of course I believed in Freud and the notion that we were all driven by base instincts, which we had to master through intellectual self-inquiry. Nowadays, I see that spirituality and prayer are also valid ways to heal oneself. Our intellectual inquiry has only begun to scratch the surface of the complexity of the human mind and spirit. Men are now working on computers that will mimic human behaviors, thoughts, and eventually emotions. But, so what if someone doesn’t stop along the way to ask, what does it mean to be human?

As I said, Chris and I had some good times together in Barcelona, but on the Saturday we parted ways, promising to write eachother and keep in touch. After he left, I walked to a tobacconist and bought a pipe and a pouch of shag to pretend I was Jean-Paul Sartre. Then I went to the train station and bought a ticket for Paris. On the train, I sat in a compartment with an old man, who wore a little blue beret and a threadbare green coat. I spoke a little Spanish, back then and we managed to carry on a simulacrum of a conversation. He was a farmer from up around Figueras, who was returning home after having spent the week with his daughter who lived in Barcelona. I wanted to see what he had thought of Franco—whether he had a been a fascist sympathizer or had communistic sympathies. He seemed a bit nervous about speaking freely—perhaps that’s what came of living in a police state. Yet at one point he pulled out a girlie magazine and slapped it on my lap. “You couldn’t buy those under Franco!” he declared triumphantly. I was surprised. Was that all that free speech meant to him?

Peter Ilyich Tchaikowsky, Nutcracker Ballet

For many years, I ignored classical ballet and modern dance. Don’t ask me to explain why. Back in the 1970s, one of my best friends in college majored in dance at Indiana University.  He tried his darndest to get me to appreciate it at the time by describing the basic moves, showing me what incredibly strength and balance a dancer must possess, and analyzing the technique of the great dancers–Barishnikov, Nureyev, and Nijinsky–all to no avail.  I could appreciate these separate elements, but as an art form, ballet left me cold.

Maybe it was the extreme stylization of ballet that irked me.  Male dancers have to be strong enough to throw women up into the air and catch them, while making them look as light as a feather. Granted, given that many ballerinas battle anorexia, they might in fact be lighter than average. But still, you try tossing 90 pounds around like a basketball. And that was the problem. It seemed too unreal. It defied all sense of physics. It seemed almost like slight of hand. On top of that, modern dance seemed so divorced from the rhythm of the music–probably the elemental cause of dance in the first place–that I found it hard to appreciate it as a visual art form.

Of course, there is a bit of contradiction here, for I love many piece of music written for ballets. Among these are some of the most important musical works of the 20th century, written for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe in Paris, namely Stravinsky’s FirebirdPetrushka, and Rite of Spring.

No doubt I had heard the Suite from the Nutcracker ballet countless times during the Christmas season on the local classical station. During my sophomore year in college in the fall of 1974, my unrequited love  suggested we go see Fantasia, in which Disney’s illustrators did a clever job having fairies trace iridescent patterns on spider webs with drops of dew. And who can criticize the dancing mushrooms?  Later, she organized an outing with her and her best friend to see the Nutcracker live at Christmastime. I found the piece extremely accessible and the melding of visual images and music to be almost flawless.   Oddly enough, that wasn’t enough to make me want to follow ballet.

In the mid-1980s, I saw an interview with a number of ballerinas.  It was a documentary about the life of dancers and showed the struggles and pains and almost masochistic lengths they go through to be able to dance.  There was little else they were prepared to do.  When one was asked what she would like to do should she not make it as a full time professional ballerina, she thought for a moment and said, “maybe become a princess.”  This did not win me over to dance.

It wasn’t until I was married and had children that I started to appreciate the form.  When my daughter Claire was about two, I recorded a production of the Nutcracker that was on Public Television starring Mikhail Barishnikov.  Whenever I put it on, my daughter would watch completely enrapt.  When the “Russian Dance” came on, she’d explode in a frenzy of movement and start running around the house, completely enthralled and motivated by the music.

Still, it wasn’t until about two years ago that I started to fully appreciate the art form.  I was given season tickets to the ballet season at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.  The tickets had belonged to my best friend, David Hendrickson, who had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor a few months before.  His partner Gianfranco had moved David to Gainesville, Florida from his home in DC and knew David wouldn’t be able to attend the performances as he was undergoing chemo and radiation.  So my wife and I went to see the Beijing Dance Theatre, Keigwin + Company, the Ballet Preljocaj and the Mark Morris, Alvin Ailey, and Merce Cunningham dance companies.

Well, it’s as if the scales fell from my eyes. I watched, mouth agape, as dancers did extraordinary feats that defied gravity and expressed some of the most profound human emotions imaginable. I came away with a profound respect for the form and look forward to making up for so much lost time.

Tchaikovsky Biography

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Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilich: Marche Slave, Op.31

In my last post, I mentioned that during the second semester of my freshman year at college in 1974, I took a piano class. This, I thought, would be my big chance. Since I loved classical music so much, I reasoned, I’d have no trouble mastering this instrument and play the pieces I loved so dearly. Pieces like Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies or Rachmaninoff’sPrelude in C Sharp Minor.

This is one of the benefits of youth: you really think you can do anything. Unfortunately, for some reason, I turned out to be quite inept. I did learn all the major scales in both hand, but I couldn’t quite memorize the notes. It was as if I was back in 6th grade band class with my clarinet all over again trying to figure out something that didn’t make any sense to me. It would be easy to blame it on the teacher, trying to learn in a group, or the basic instruction book we used, which contained pretty uninspired pieces.

Deep down, I suspect it was just because I set such unrealistic expectations for myself and the class. I remember, shortly after starting the class, sitting down with my copy of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor, and just staring at the music. I could not figure out how to translate what we had gone over in class to what was on the page. It was even more frustrating trying the Satie, since that piece is slow and sounds so simple. What I didn’t understand is that it might take years training one’s mind to keep track of every finger and two feet.

Think about what happens when a person plays the piano. In any one time slice, you could have every finger on a different key. A fraction of a second, those ten digits have to rearrange themselves to form the next chord. At the same time, your mind has vary the time each one hits, the downward pressure and the upward release. Try tapping out one rhythm with one hand. Then add a different rhythm in the second. Multiply that by 5 and you get an idea of how complex. It’s almost like you have to have ten separate consciousnesses. You must train yourself to do that (through hours and hours of practice) so that it becomes automatic, so that you don’t have to think about it for thinking about it would trip you up.  Since I wasn’t polydextrous, I gave it up after that semester.

As I said, I could blame the book, but it did contain one classical piece, which was fun to play. That was an excerpt from today’s piece, Tchaikowski’s Marche Slave. As the name suggests, it is a wonderfully Slavic sounding piece. You could imagine yourself on a boat going down the Neva River watching a troop of Cossacks ride by. It shares that wonderfully ponderous and lumbering feeling with other Russian music.

It wasn’t until some twenty years later, however, that I actually heard the full orchestral version. It is a kind of pastiche of various melodies. The first part is based on that single Russian theme, which in a not very creative way, Tchaikowsky repeats and varies about 14 times. A second section reminds you a bit of parts out of the 1812 Overture and fortunately he switches to a different tune–this time based on the Russian national anthem. The feeling of that section is at times more pensive and begins to hint at some of the beauty of his later works. Unfortunately, he slips back to the opening melody once or twice. In the final session, he does pick up the tempo a bit, repeating the national anthem and then launching into a brisk march, sounding, at times, a bit like a patriotic parade.

Nowadays, I tend to eschew such propagandistic pieces. Still, Tchaikowsky was fairly young when he wrote this and so was I when I learned to play it in Eijnar Krantz’ piano class nearly 40  years ago.

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Peter Ilyich Tchaikowsky: Piano Concerto Number One in B Minor

It is hard to imagine a more accessible piece for anyone wandering where to start listening to classical music than Tchaikowsky’s : Piano Concerto Number One. Tchaikowsky was Rachmaninov’s teacher and this work gets almost as much airplay as any of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos. The first movement is so romantic and passionate that it was pirated and turned into the popular song “Tonight We Love”, and you also see it listed in those compilations hawked on television. You know the ones: “The Greatest Love Themes of All Times.”

In high school, shortly after I discovered the piece, I was pleased to see it used in a comedy movie called The Tiger Makes Out.” This film (circa 1967) starred Eli Wallach who plays a self-proclaimed “Superman,” having gorged himself on the ideas of Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Sartre. He lives in a small basement apartment in Greenwich Village, New York. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, he believe he must perform some great act to prove his superiority. He conceives a plan for kidnapping a beautiful woman, who’ll recognize his genius and become his love slave. The plan goes a bit wrong, however, when he throws a gunny sack a woman on the street. Back in his apartment, he unwraps her to find a middle-aged woman with marital problems. He screams: “What is this? Some kind of joke?” In a kind of O’Henry twist, she turns out much cleverer than he. Eventually, they fall in love and fall to the floor in a passionate embrace with Tchaikowsky’s Piano Concerto Number One whirling around on a portable record player next to them.

Not a bad scene, especially considering how passionate this piece is. It starts out with the horns giving a rousing blast followed by the piano that plays one-two-three chords repeatedly as the orchestra plays the melody. The piano then takes that melody and weaves lots of variations with it. The second movement starts with a single flute playing an achingly beautiful air, which the piano then takes up. The woodwinds take it back for a while and embellish it and give it back to the piano, which then does intricate wonders with it. A bash of the tympani jolt us out of our reverie in the final movement, which is marked “Con Fuoco” (with fire) which nicely sums up the energy and demanding piano work all the way through to the finale. Altogether, it is quite rousing.

I told a friend, John Kim, that after Rachmaninov, I intended to write about the other piano concertos that transfixed me during high school-those of Greig, Schumann, and Brahms. His reaction was: “Gee, you’re really going right into the heart of the Romantic period then. Aren’t you going to write about any light pieces?” I told him that my goal was to present the pieces in the order they came to me, and these all arrived in my late teens.

Perhaps I gravitated toward during this time period because they gave me solace amid the turbulence of those years. As I’ve said, I was wrestling with depression caused by and resulting in insecurity. Other people self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, sex and food. Listening to music was my way of expressing and experiencing my emotions in a controlled way.

Many of my high school friends were straight A students, gifted athletes, and the most popular kids in class. Yet when they got into drugs and alcohol, they went completely overboard. Some dropped out of school. The brother of another shattered his body in a horrible alcohol-related car wreck and lay in a coma for a month. Other got married too soon, ruining their chance of a professional career. Another went into the Navy to find the discipline could not impose on himself. Considering my personality, I don’t know how I would have turned out had I not found music to assuage my growing pains.

You might say “What a bourgeois, spoiled waste of talent. Four fifths of the world’s population don’t have enough to eat and we in America kill ourselves with drugs.” Perhaps this is true. Back then we didn’t see it that way. We all thought we were supermen. We could do anything and thought we had enough good sense to pull ourselves back from the brink. Maybe our comfort gave us this false sense of security. Or maybe, having had all of our material comforts provided us, we felt we needed to take these risks to feel alive.

Seems like we could all be more efficient. Too bad “culture” gets such short shrift in our consumerist society. It used to be the glue that held society together and passed down the “lessons-learned” so you didn’t have to reinvent the wheel with each generation. And it really wasn’t stultifying to have to learn a discipline like music. Once you master what’s gone before, you have good foundation on which to build. Just as Tchaikowsky learned from and built upon the work of Anton Rubenstein and Rimsky-Korsakov, so did his pupil, Rachmaninov, who carried on and went even further. Superman’s myth–that you can leap-frog over buildings in a single bound–is decidedly false.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture

Little boys like things that go “BOOM.” Come to think of it, big boys do, too. How else can you explain the wars that continue to spring up even after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Several years before my daughters were born, an article appeared in the Washington Post, by a puzzled mother. She had a small son whom she had tried to keep away from toy guns, violent movies, and all other traditionally gender-based activities. One day at a friend’s house she saw her son hop on a tricycle, pretend he was an airplane fighter pilot, and go racing down a hill, making a rat-a-tat noise as he simulated strafing his playmates. The mother concluded that boys possess a gene for this kind of behavior, or else the missing leg of the “Y” chromosome, which girls don’t lack, is involved in masking this behavior. I suspect this might be the secret reason behind the popularity for the 1812 Overture

This turns out to be another one of those pieces that’s hard-wired into everyone’s neural structure, because of over-playing. My earliest memory of the piece goes back to a 1960’s television commercial for the cereal, Quaker Puffed Rice. The ending of the Overture blared in the background as canons exploded, showering the screen with the puffed cereal. The clever copywriters had penned these memorable lyrics: “This is the cereal that’s shot from guns. This is the cereal that’s shot from guns. Quaker Puffed Rice!” which scans perfectly.

Nowadays you can’t go to an Independence Day concert, without the orchestra playing it. What’s more, a kind of 1812 Overture arms race has begun as people found the kettle drums lacking sufficient “oomph.” You can now hire a company that will set up a row of computer-controlled mortars, which the percussionist can percuss in perfect cadence with the music. I have also heard of towns making deals with the Army artillery to actually set off real Howitzer canons at the end of the piece.

I must admit that as a boy, those bursting canons did fascinate me. When I first heard the entire piece, though, I was surprised to find that the canons only occur at the end. Before that, Tchaikowski effectively captured the worry of Napoleon’s campaign, the rallying of the Russian people, and the terror of battle. This music evokes vivid images and that too might be a reason for its continued popularity. Even among boys.

Before my daughters were born, I came down on the side of nurture in the “nature versus nurture debate.” To prove the case, I tried to capture  their interests with non-sexist toys, book, and games. My oldest daughter went through a strong tom boy phase, which I believed proved the case. However, they both raised their eyebrows later when I brought home a used race car set from a garage sale. I stopped the experiment when I realized they were drawing the wrong conclusion: one day I overheard Claire—the oldest—say to my wife that she thought that I must have really wanted a son.

Now, they’ve both graduated from college and have boyfriends. They don’t follow contemporary fashion, but they dress fashionably in retro-Hippy. They both studied science and are quite articulate and environmentally aware.

Still, one summer when they were children, at an Independence Day concert in front of town hall, they were excited to find out that the orchestra would perform The 1812 Orchestra that evening. They were up for it when I suggested we go watch the computer-controlled mortars. We all laughed when the mortars went off and nearly scared us out of our skin.

Boom!

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