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: 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!

Peter Tschaikowsky. Concerto for Violin and Orchestra 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, he originally dedicated it to the violinist,  Iosif Kotek, with whom Tchaikowsky 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

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 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, and she was almost pulled 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 been 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 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. 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 bit 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?

%d bloggers like this: