H is for Toshio Hosokawa

I’m doing the A-Z April Challenge again. This year, I’m going to look only for composers born the same year as I was: 1955.

Today is H, and my choice is Toshio Hosokawa: Vertical Songs no. 1, for flute.”

If you find this a bit too inaccessible, the’re another piece below it called Serenade

Wikipedia entry for this Composer

Music For Easter

Happy Easter. Even if you aren’t a believer, there is something wonderful and redemptive and renewing about the spring.


Bach: Easter, Mass in B minor



Bach’s Easter Oratorio: Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4



Mahler – Symphony No 2, Resurrection



Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus–Beethoven
Oratorio: Christ on the Mount of Olives–Hallelujah


Penderecki: Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima

I turned 60 this past summer. That means I was 9 when Malcolm X was shot and 10 when the former racist, Lyndon Johnson, signed the voting rights act in 1965. I was 12 when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. They didn’t call Lee Harvey Oswald or James Earl Ray, “thugs” or “terrorists.” But the fear they inspired put a palpable damper on the optimism for change that had begun in the early 1960s.  The government didn’t help.  J. Edgar Hoover, tyrant obviously as mentally disturbed by his inability to reconcile his own sexuality, (like Hitler, by the way), had gone after King, the Blank Panthers, The Students for A Democratic Society with wiretaps and even blatant propaganda.  For example, I remember seeing this billboard on my way to Boy Scout camp one summer.

Martin-Luther-King-Jr-Communist-Training-Camp-Billboard-670x419

Most urban whites fled to the suburbs after the riots of 1968 and the forced busing of African Americans from poverty stricken school districts to “white,” schools increased the created animosity among whites and reversed the dream of racial harmony that had started. Today, I heard on Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, that the African American Hip-Hop artist, actor, and movie producer, Ice Cube, had been bused into a white neighborhood. When asked what he thought of that, he said it was great, because it exposed him to other people, other music, other ideas, and showed that there was a different world out there. Listen to the full interview here.

The pessimistic funk that followed in the decades following was like a Sword of Damocles handing over the world’s head.  To dull the pain, the 70s turned into what Tom Wolfe called the “Me Decade.”  It should have been called “the me-coke-disco-addiction decade.”  Wolfe called this “atomized individualism.”  Political leaders invented more bogeymen–Brezhnev, Pol Pot, The Cold War, OPEC, The Yom Kippur War, Bangladesh, Idi Amin, the overthrow by the USA of a democratically elected government in Chile, the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics, skyjackings, Watergate, the murder of Steve Biko, the hostage crisis.  For more fun reading, look at Wikipedia’s entry on the 1970s.  Toward the end, there was some slight hope–the Mideast Peace accord brokered by Jimmy Carter.

I would normally say, “Let’s just forget the 1980s.”  The Reagan-Bush years that started systematically disassembling the middle class to enable corporate soul-less materialism.  But then, in 1989, something miraculous happened: the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Suddenly the sword was lifted and we no longer had to live under the constant fear of nuclear annihilation.

So it took 21 years, from 1968 to 1989, almost the turn of one generation for the zeitgeist in the US, at least, start to change. The 1990s, by contrast, brought optimism back, and our Millenial Children grew up in an optimistic time.  The prosperity of the Clinton years, the advances in computers and the internet, the Oslo accord, the Convention on Bio-Diversity, WHO removing homosexuality from its list of diseases, and of course Harry Potter.

2000s–back to fear after 9/11 and the real start of another dark ages of racial hatred.  Then, amazingly, in 2008, 40 years after 1968, the US elects Barack Obama as president.  In a way, since then, it’s like the US went back in time.  The 2008 financial crisis didn’t help, which decimated the middle class, and like most countries in the midst of economic hardship, xenophobia has started to soar.  Will it take another generation, until 2028, for us to purge ourselves if this insanity.  Maybe the Millenials who grew up for the most part, without the racist attitudes of their grandparents, will save us.

The other day, I was talking to a colleague about half my age about the passionate speech that President Obama gave to try to stop gun violence that kills about 7 children per day in the US (that’s about 16,000 preventable deaths in the last seven years.)  That lead into a discussion about how crazy the political process has become and the active and coded racism that has been directed at Obama since then.  HE’S ASKING FOR COMPASSION, PEOPLE.  Instead the next day, the New York Times does a report on the Twitter-storm that the Republican candidates’ shiny boots have caused.  Is there any rational political discourse any more?  I said to her, “At sixty, it’s really disappointing having to watch this racism a second time in my lifetime.” The quote by George Santayana comes to mind: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So for today, I chose this shocking piece of music by Krzysztof Penderecki, composed in 1960.

Penderecki wrote it in the late 50s (around the age of 25) under the influence of composers like Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg.  It uses microtones, making it sound particularly discordant, and has the performers bow behind the bridge, slap their instruments, or improvise at random points on their instruments’ scale.  Of course serial and atonal music is a type of intellectual game, but when he first heard it performed by an orchestra, Penderecki experienced such an emotional reaction, that he dedicated the piece to the victims of Hiroshima, saying “Let the Threnody express my firm belief that the sacrifice of Hiroshima will never be forgotten and lost.”

According to Wikipedia, “A threnody is a song, hymn or poem of mourning composed or performed as a memorial to a dead person.

It is interesting to watch this version which scrolls along the score as the music plays:

If this music sounds somewhat familiar to you, it’s because Stanley Kubrick used it in the film, “The Shining.” It evokes horror. The horror of young children looking up into the sky at the sound of a plane and then hear bombs fall (think Syria today) followed by a hot blast that either rips them apart or melts away their flesh. That this is going on in the 21st Century is unconscionable. If you have children, or remember how beautiful life might have been as a child, just think of the horror and fear and desolation and senselessness when anyone dies from preventable violence.
I didn’t necessarily want to start the New Year on such a bleak note. In fact, every day, I meet young people who seem not to have grown up with the biases and limitations of the racism practiced by their parent or directed against their ethnic group. It is refreshing and gives me hope.

Penderecki turned hopeful too, and his later works have become more straightforward. About this he says: “The avant-garde gave one an illusion of universalism. The musical world of Stockhausen, Nono, Boulez and Cage was for us, the young – hemmed in by the aesthetics of socialist realism, then the official canon in our country – a liberation…I was quick to realise however, that this novelty, this experimentation and formal speculation, is more destructive than constructive; I realised the Utopian quality of its Promethean tone’. Penderecki concluded that he was ‘saved from the avant-garde snare of formalism by a return to tradition’.

Here’s an example of his later work: “Violin Concerto No.2 ‘Metamorphosen'”

 

Béla Bartók: Piano Sonata Sz. 80 (1926) Pianist – Zoltán Kocsis

Thanks to Derrick Robinson, for posting this Sonata by Bartok. I’d never heard it before, and it’s amazing to watch Kocsis from above.

Source: Béla Bartók: Piano Sonata Sz. 80 (1926) Pianist – Zoltán Kocsis

Summer Reruns–Grofé: Grand Canyon Suite

When compiling the list of pieces I used to listen to as a child, some subconscious part of me made me leave out The Grand Canyon Suite. “It’s not serious, or classical music,” I heard a voice inside saying. As a child, however, I often played the recording of it that belonged to my older brother, Bob, on the days when I’d sneak into his room while he was at work.

The Grand Canyon Suite is a highly imagistic piece of music. Grofé tried to capture the majesty of the striated canyon as the light gradually reveals the dazzling colors at sunrise. In another section, he imitates the clopping of donkey hooves transporting tourists down into the canyon floor. Grofé then shamelessly uses the violins to imitate the bray of the asses as they lose their grip and then grind to a stubborn halt. You know how it goes: every filmmaker has used that technique in every documentary and cowboy western film. Still, I wonder, what lay behind my ignoring the piece?

Looking Grofé up in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, I find an entry for the composer. Well, if the musical Dons at Oxford thought him serious enough to include in their book, why should I turn my nose up at him? Also, while researching this piece, I learned that he was quite an accomplished musician, having orchestrated Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Grofé’s entry also says the composer wrote The Grand Canyon Suite in 1931, which means he probably wasn’t the first composers to imitate animals. Let’s see: I think, Saint-Saens has braying assess in Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev, born just one year before Grofé, imitated a wolf, a duck, and a twittering bird in Peter and the Wolf. All of this occurred in the infant stages of film, and television and Walt Disney’s anthropomorphic animal documentaries were just a twinkling in a cartoonist’s eye. So it’s not really Grofé to blame for making this device hackneyed, it was Hollywood film or New York TV executives.

There must be more to my negative associations with this piece than just TV, and while thinking about my last couple entries, the answer suddenly popped out at me. Snobbism and ignorance. I mentioned earlier that a certain highly intellectual family I hung out with in high school weren’t really snobby people. Mind you, they could spot bad taste more quickly than anyone I’ve met. Yet, they did not look down their nose at the perpetrators of kitch. They usually just laughed at it or attributed it to greed.

In retrospect my actions become clear: in my desire to be “cultured” and an “intellectual” I divided the world into cultured and non-cultured, and labeled the one “good” and the other “bad.” Though my origin is definitely working class, I put on airs. Why? Why does anyone? To be liked? Respected? Popular? It’s now painfully clear that I drew the wrong conclusions about culture that the this family exposed me to. What the harm? The answer is “missing quite enjoyable experiences that some people label ‘popular.'”

Fortunately, life always give you a second chance when you make a mistake. While driving home from my daughter’s violin lesson when she was in her teens, the local public radio station playedThe Grand Canyon Suite. Instead of switching it off, I left it on for her to hear, so she could form her own opinion. I listened as if for the first time, and then I realized this piece was an old friend, and it was still fresh and vibrant for me. So here’s to Ferde Grofé and second chances.

Summer Reruns–Carl Orff: “Amor Volat Undique,” “Stetit Puella” and “Dulcissime” from Carmina Burana

Unlike most fans of classical music, I don’t necessarily compare performers and performances. Usually, whatever recording was the first I heard becomes the definitive performance for me. Of course there were exceptions: I listened to about 10 versions of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony-by Walter, Solti, Szell, Bernstein, Toscanini and others-before finally choosing one by Karajan. And that wasn’t for any profound reason; I just happened to prefer it because I could hear the oboe and English horn passage in the second movement more clearly than any of the others.

The definitive performance of Carmina Burana for me is the one with Michael Tilson Thomas, in which the soprano, Judith Blegen sings the arias mentioned in the title of today’s post. This recording was one of the first ever done in quadraphonic sound, and so they spared no expense to making it a blockbuster. They had a chorus of 250 singers and used some of the best soloists of the day. On the liner notes it says that Blegen was a regular at the Met during this time period, and she was so good that all they needed was one take. The aria, “Amor Volat Unique” (love flies everywhere), requires the soprano to hold a note for a full 30 seconds. For a long time, Blegen’s was the only recording I heard in which the singer could sustain the note for that long. In some recordings, the sopranos actually took a breath midway through.  Unfortunately, this version has been removed from Youtube.

“Amor volat unique” has to be one of the most beautiful songs on the album. It starts with a musical interlude in which flutes waft along playing a melody that the soprano will sing at the end. A boys’ chorus then chimes in and with cherubic delivery sing about the rightness of young men and women joining together. Then comes that chillingly beautiful soprano solo:

“If a girl lacks a man
she misses all delight;
darkest night is at the bottom
of her heart.
This is the bitterest fate.

Blegen’s performance still sends shivers down my spine, these 30+ years later. The second soprano solo is called “Stetit Puella”.

The poetry has an almost Haiku-like simplicity, but it captures perfectly the feeling of being dumbstruck by love:

There stood a maid
in a red tunic;
when it was touched
the tunic rustled.
Ai!

There stood a girl,
like a rose;
her face was radiant;
her mouth bloomed.
Ai!

Sometimes, however, you can get burned even by a good orchestra and performer. When I lived in Italy five years after first hearing Carmina Burana, my girlfriend bought a copy on Deutsche Gramophon with Eugen Joachum conducting and Gundula Janowitz singing. Not only did Janowitz break the note into two with a huge breath, on the aria, “Dulcissime” where the soprano has to slide up to an impossibly high note, her voice actually cracked. It sounded like a cross between a squawk and a scream.

Here’s Kathleen Battle singing “Dulcissime” another piece that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Depending on your point of view, Carmina Burana may or may not be the perfect music for an adolescent virgin male to listen to in the Spring. Back then (circa 1975 at the ripe age of 20) I found the songs devoted to love quite poignant and used to just sit around listening to them and dissolve into self-pity. I wonder now at how I could have missed the exhortation in the words to just go out and get on with it. There I was living in a dorm among women who shared similar tastes in music, art and literature, and I was still too tongue-tied to do anything about it. Perhaps it goes back to having formed a warped notion of Romantic love from reading too much Dostoyevsky. Remember, a number of his women characters are fallen women, whom the protagonist worships from afar and sees the means to salvation.

They really should teach you how to fall in love high school.

Orff Biography

Buy CD or Download MP3s of Carmina Burana

Summer Reruns–Igor Stravinsky, Petrushka

Today I answer the question my daughter posed in 1999  and which sowed the seed for this web site. We were on the way to her weekly violin lesson, and as always I had tuned the car radio to the local classical music station. Some piece came on and I started whistling along. Claire, age twelve, said to me: “Daddy. What is your favorite piece of music?” Without hesitation I can now say that the one piece to which I consistently turn—for solace, joy, intellectual stimulation, or just plain fun—is Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Most musicologists will say that Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring has had more influence on the direction of 20th Century music than any other piece written. However, I find Petrushka much more satisfying because it stands perfectly balanced between the classical tradition out of which Stravinsky came and the new one—containing complex rhythms and harmonies—which he helped create. To me, Stravinsky’s musical work reminds me of many of the visual artists, like Monet and Cezanne, who started out classically trained, moved through impressionism and then virtually invented abstract art—Monet in color and Cezanne in form.

Stravinsky had begun Petrushka as a concert piece for piano and orchestra. He took it to the impresario of the Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev, who had produced the Firebird. Diaghilev told him to turn in into a ballet because of the success of the earlier work. The ballet revolves around a menage a trois between three puppets―Petrushka, a ballerina and a Moor. Stravinsky had been inspired by the image of a puppet, “suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet.”

Here’s a 1928 recording with Stravinsky conducting himself:

Petrushka is divided into five sections, one for each scene. The first and the last scene are set during the Russian Mardi Gras, during the Shrove Tide Fair. Stravinsky captures perfectly the excitement a child feels at the sights and sounds of a fair. He starts out with a bright bubbly introduction: flutes, strings and harp bounce along at a rapid pace like butterflies flashing in the sun. All of a sudden, the string basses rush in and play a syncopated rhythm that takes control. The full orchestra joins in and plays in this vein, from time to time punctuated with a blast from a trumpet or flute. Then the piece changes rhythm again as the entire orchestra joins in building to a climax before it abruptly stops. Then Stravinsky starts it all over again but on the second pass he brings everything rushing to a halt on the shoulders of the tympanis playing like tom-toms.

According to Ted Libbey in his book, The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection during this first section, “two bars of superimposed 3/4 and 7/8 are followed by two bars of 2/4 and 5/8 and one of 3/4 and 8/8.” These complex rhythms set up such a feeling of energy and ebullience that I never tire of hearing it.

Unlike The Rites of Spring where one passage flows into the next, each scene, save one, is divided into discrete subsections with rhythms and feelings of their own. The third movement, for example, called “The Charlatan’s Booth,” starts out with an ominous bassoon and drum that leads us through the dark folds of a tent and into the inner sanctum. There the flute plays a wistful melody that has a hint of magic to it. Shimmering violins add to the effect. Stravinsky then launches into an amazing Russian Dance, which he based on a folk song that he had his mentor, Rimsky-Korsakov, sent him while he was composing the piece. The staccato rhythm of this dance backed by the bright clear orchestration makes this one of the most joyous pieces I know of.

Stravinsky did a large part of his composing at the piano. Odd then that he did not write a piano concerto. Instead he treated the instrument as an integral part of the orchestra. This shows in the scene called “Petrushka’s Room.” Here Stravinsky uses the piano sometimes as a percussion instrument and at others to create a haunting feeling that seems to evoke the strings of a puppet. This piece is where Petrushka has his little fight with the orchestra, especially the mocking trumpets. This I think is the pivotal movement of the whole piece in which Stravinsky sets up a “mano a mano” between the old tradition of tonality with the new that he invents in this piece. He creates haunting and jarring chords by having trumpets and other instruments plays at intervals of fifths and sevenths. He later said this is some of the writing of which he was the proudest.

Here is a piano version of three scenes from Petrushka that I find astounding:

For me this piece holds so many associations for me with the bucolic atmosphere of Indiana University where I went to college. Every day to get to Ballentine hall, where most of my language and literature courses took place, I would walk past the school of music. The road ran past the school’s huge circular annex, which was given over to sound proof practice rooms. Starting in spring when it became warm enough, the students practicing inside would throw open the windows and I would be serenaded every day. One piece that I often heard came from the third scene of Petrushka, which takes place in the Moor’s room. The piece is called “Dance of the Ballerina.”

Petrushka loves the ballerina, but given that she’s in the Moor’s room, we know Petrushka is the odd man out. The ballerina’s dance is oddly masculine and martial—it consists of 45 seconds of a trumpet solo. And it was this trumpet solo that I remember hearing on many occasions on my walks past the school of music. It must be a set audition piece for all trumpet players.

To mark the beginning of the last scene, the return to the Shrove Tide Fair, Stravinsky uses the roll of the tympanis once again. There follow a series of dances for various characters. After a wonderful lush soaring introduction, he moves into the “Dance of the Nursemaids,” which I think is one of my all-time favorite melodies by Stravinsky. I think of a wonderful Russian snow scape at night with a troika slushing along. But by the end, Stravinsky has changed the mood once again to a sparkling sunny day. Suddenly Stravinsky changes the rhythm to a lumbering one accompanied by a mocking clarinet, which captures the ridiculous sight of a peasant and a bear dancing together. The “Dance of the Gypsy Girls” is fiery and exotic. It is followed by the “Dance of Coachmen and Grooms” who skip along in a kind of stately but comic way. The second to last piece is called “The Masqueraders” and contains a lot of brass that convey a sense of confusion, urgency and anxiety. Stravinsky brings back the opening theme, but gives it a sort of American Indian feeling to it. Before long, we realize something is amiss. The Moor kills Petrushka. In the last scene Stravinsky conveys the feeling of night with quiet, but shimmering violins and a wary clarinet. Petrushka dies, yet he raises from the dead and dances above the Shrove Tide Fair shaking his angry fist at the lovers and having the last laugh, which a pair of trumpets play in different keys.

Here’s the finale:

For me, the mix of the old and the new, the innovation, the depth of emotion, and the all-encompassing nature of this work clearly shows Stravinski’s genius and listening to it once again makes me certain that it belongs at the top of my list of all time favorites.

Biography

MP3: Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, The Firebird & Apollo

Summer reruns–Johann Sebastian Bach: Minuet in G major

I’ve been writing a lot lately about pieces that have watery themes. Bach certainly did not have water on the brain when he penned this minuet, but in the 60s the tune was used in a Motown pop record. A woman with a strong, gospel-trained voice belted out the words, which went something like “How gentle is the rain…”

It’s not hard to imagine how this melody got to Detroit. In 1994, my daughter started violin lessons. Her teacher used the Suzuki books, which have graded pieces. The Minuet in G major is one of the last ones in the first book. It also happens to be one of the first pieces in the key of G, which on the violin requires different fingering than what you’ve been blithely playing for nearly a year.

In the key of A, starting on the third string, you play open string, put the first finger down for B and then play C and D with the second and third fingers–all three being equally spaced. On the G scale, however–which starts with the third finger on the second string–when you get to the A string, you put the first finger down like you’ve always done, but to play B you suddenly put the second finger down right next to the first! All major scales go whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. The hard thing on the violin is that there are no frets to represent whole and half steps. The piano is luxurious in a way because the placement of the keys and the black keys clearly show which are whole and half.

The minuet was a French country dance that became very popular in the 17th century and which was eventually formalized by composers as an integral part of the suite. Eventually as suites migrated and changed into symphonies, the minuet movement developed into the scherzo. As a simple dance form, it had a three-beat rhythm, like a waltz. It is a good piece for beginners because the strong beat helps you remember it.

Bach had two wives and 20 children! Four of his sons became famous composers in their own right. Their household must have been something. You think: a prototype for the Von Trap family. When I looked online for this piece, I found it buried in what is called the “The Anna Magdalena Notebooks.” He wrote these to teach his second wife, Anna Magdalena, how to play. Poor lady. Imagine having to bear that many children and then sit down to tickle the ivories. I had trouble finding time to have quality time with my two daughters when they were little! How did Anna Magdalena do it?  Recently, I heard that after Anna Magdalena raised those children, they abandoned her and she died penniless.

Anna Magdalena’s Biography
Buy Recording or Download Mp3 At Amazon

Summer Reruns–Claude Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

Today, I have chosen Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, because today’s post (see below) is about being in Paris in 1977 and going to see some paintings of water lilies by Monet at the Orangerie museum. Monet’s paintings were so different that they caused a revolution in painting. Painters became more and more obsessed with abstracting out form and color and how the paint relates to the surface of the canvass and this led to the Pointillism of Seurat, the Cubism of Braque and Picasso, and the Abstract Expressionism of people like Pollock.  Debussy was influenced by Monet as well as the highly imagistic and non-linear music of the Indonesian Gamelan, which he had heard during the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889.

In the same way of the Impressionist painters, Debussy’s music influenced almost every composer of the 20th century. In the opening strains of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, for example, you can hear him quoting the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

The Prelude was Debussy’s attempt to capture the emotion evoked by a poem by the French symbolist poet, Stephen Mallarme. In this poem, a faun (a satyr or Pan-like creature) has a semi-erotic dream about a water nymph. Debussy captures the feelings of arousal, the shimmering of the water, the climax of emotion, and the post-whatsit lassitude that engulfs the faun.

Down and Out in Paris

In my last post, I described how, during my first two weeks in Paris (in 1977), my moods fluctuated wildly. Some days, I would rise early with a sense of excitement and spend the entire day going through the laundry list of attractions that people had told me to pay a visit or about which I had studied while working on my degree in French. I went to the Louvre, Notre Dame, Mont Martre, Sacre Coeur, Place des Voges, and the medieval section known as the Marais. In the evenings, I went to see retrospectives of all of Bertolucci’s films up to that point in his career, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and Renais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Taking in all this culture buoyed my spirits, but at the same time an overwhelming sadness cast a pall over all my emotions.

I seemed to take to heart all the little setbacks that came my way and blame them on the city and its inhabitants. When I couldn’t find an apartment and the lead on one that seemed like a sure bet fell through, it sent me into a downward spiral. Now I see myself back then as being immature and impatient. Another thing that depressed me was that I wasn’t speaking French. I had fallen in with ex-patriot Americans and we all spoke English. Then when I would try out my French on the Parisians, they would either start talking to me in English or start railing at me about American imperialism or racism and sometimes both.

Perhaps I wasn’t prepared for the fast pace of big city life and the defense mechanisms that the citizens of Paris, like those of New York created for themselves. Truth be told, back then parts of Paris were dirty and full of people on the make. Here are a few paragraphs I wrote to my friend Thom, that kind of sum up my impressions:

“[Paris] definitely has its charms. Who hasn’t looked glowingly upon the clochards [winos] in the metro as they loll about like wine soaked walruses? Who couldn’t be happy with the beggars who exhibit mutilated feet or their unseeing eyes hoping to shock you into doling out money? Who wouldn’t reflect upon their own happy childhood seeing a little gypsy girl who hands you a note that explains that she’s very poor, how her father ran off and left her and her mother. The latter sits by looking very well fed, shoving junk food into another baby that lies, swaddled, across her lap. Ah, it makes a man feel good to be alive, I tell you Thomas!”

“I cannot begin to express to you the warmth I feel when, bustled and shoved into a cramped metro car, my glance flies hither and thither trying to avoid the glances of others who are trying to avoid my own gaze. You can stare directly at someone and nothing registers–their face is a complete blank. I suppose it’s because the women feel that to smile would be an approval of a come on?”

“It’s sort of interesting; most of what Mary [a friend of Thom’s] said about the way the French dress is true. Men cram themselves into blue jeans. Women have scarves, fur coats, and boots. But what ever your wear, it must be done in style, and everyone takes great care to develop their own. However, there are outcasts. For example, there is a cult of greasers, which one can see almost everywhere in their tight blue jeans, black leather motorcycle jackets, duck ass haircuts, etc. But even they have their own swagger and flair.”

In one of the letters that I wrote to Thom, I confess to being extremely lonely. All the new sights and sounds and smells of Paris were so overwhelming, that I wanted to have someone there to share it with. One of my fantasies was to become a writer, and I felt that if only could had had a soul mate with me in Paris, I could have become one. In truth, being on my own was probably the best thing that could have happened because I ended up writing almost continuously. I wrote letters daily to Thom and would sit in cafés for hours recording my impressions in a diary. What better way to learn how to do something than to practice it every day?

Still, I was too stupid to realize the value of that at the time, and so as I said before, I decided to buy a train ticket and go to the south of France. During my last week in Paris, I continued my sightseeing. One day I went to the Orangerie, a museum dedicated to the works of the Impressionists and the founders of modern art-Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, etc. It gets its name from having once been the green house for the Petit Palais and the Louvre where orange trees were stored during the winter. One of its treasures consists of two large elliptically shaped rooms that contain Monet’s culminating masterpiece, “Water Lilies.” This consists of four huge tableaux that cover the wall and recreated the scene on the pond on the grounds of Monet’s house at Giverny. The works represents and almost hallucinogenic or surreal experience sparked by gazing at the surface of the pond. The lilies seem to hover above the dabs of blue and green that shimmer on the rippling surface. I once read that Debussy was so taken by the evocation of moving water in Monet’s painting that he tried to capture the same sensation in his own musical compositions.

The curators of the Orangerie tried to capture the cross-fertilization between the visual and musical arts in their display of the “Water Lilies,” by playing music to heighten the artistic experience. Unfortunately, they chose to pipe in some ghastly and lugubrious contemporary music by a composer who was moved by the paintings. Why they didn’t just play some Debussy, remains a mystery to me. And believe it or not, this so offended me that it contributed to my decision to leave Paris.

Summer Reruns–Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

A few weeks ago, I wrote about having gone to see Fantasia for the first time in the fall of 1974.  Everyone on campus as the time looked forward to its re-release. Many friends talked about how great it would be to get high and go see it.

This reveals how drug use had changed between the 60s and 70s. Back in the 60s, when LSD and marijuana hit the scene, gurus like Timothy Leary claimed drugs helped break through the culturally- imposed barriers that stifled creativity. These barriers, Leary reasoned, turned us into automatons that could be told to go to church, fight wars, and be productive consumers. People took drugs to expand their minds and gain new insights into life.  If that’s true, it makes me wonder,  when you turn inward, where do the images and ideas you get come from?

Remember that people who were in their 20s during the 1960s had not grown up with television, and so their child-like sense of wonder probably had radically different roots than the next group of us baby boomers. My peers and I, on the other hand–born in the 50s–grew up watching cartoons on Saturday mornings and on the Walt Disney hour on Sunday evenings. Our sense of wonder focused on cuteness. When drugs were used to get back to that childish state, Fantasia was the perfect vehicle.

In my childhood, we religiously watched the Walt Disney Hour on Sunday evenings.  One clip that you would some times catch a glimpse of on the show was Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. That image of Mickey dressed in the star-studded robes of a magician, taken from the movie, had also become a kind of symbol. You could buy posters of it and even find three dimensional statues of it in “collectable” stores. It went from cute to kitsch.

Some people, though, feel the entire movie epitomizes kitsch. That’s one of the reasons Stravinsky hated Fantasia. Why can’t the music stand by itself? He felt, putting pictures to it created a mental crutch for people who don’t understand music and therefore could not approach it intellectually. That is kind of an elitist view.  Stravinsky I later learned got no royalties from Disney for the use of his score because of copyright issues, so he might have had an axe to grind.

My complaint about Fantasia goes back to this question: “who says the mental images evoked by the cartoonists are preferable to one’s own?” Oddly enough, Stravinsky’s own Rite of Spring, eventually became my second favorite piece by the composer, but the interpretation of it in the movie–darkly colored with dinosaurs and erupting volcanoes–to my mind at least was absolutely ghastly. That actually put me off from giving it the due it deserved. Still, when Fantasia was re-released in theatres when they were toddlers, I took my daughters to see it, and later bought them the videocassette.

Of course, Stravinsky didn’t say what he thought about music that intended to evoke mental images. Both Beethoven and Mahler imitate cuckoos in their Sixth and Firstsymphonies, respectively. Arthur Honegger wrote a piece called Pacific 231 that imitates a train. And Mozart’s father Leopold wrote a symphony with an irritating bird whistle in it. Think about the reverse situation, as well: you wouldn’t want to sit through most movies, documentaries, and other moving visual images without a musical sound track. The most abortive attempt I ever witnessed of putting music to visual images occurred in Paris. In the basement of the old Tuileries gallery, an entire room was dedicated to the display of a wrap-around series of tableaus that Monet had done of the water lilies on his pond at Giverny. Some composer had created a musical accompaniment, played on the organ, to help the listener appreciate the painting more, I guess. It was the most depressing music I ever heard and did not fit the beauty of the water lilies in the least.

I do feel, however, that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice does work the best out of all the pieces in Fantasia. You know the story, which comes from a ballad by Goethe. After a morning of conjuring, a sorcerer leaves his apprentice alone and gives him the chore of filling a cistern with water from the well. The apprentice dons the sorcerer’s robes and commands the broom to carry the water from the well. He then promptly falls asleep. When he awakes he finds the broom has continued to carry the water the whole while and the cistern is overflowing. Unfortunately, the apprentice doesn’t know the spell to stop the broom, so he picks up an axe to destroy the broom. But then, the original spell continues to work and all the little piece of broom grow into more brooms that keep on carrying more water. In the nick of time, the sorcerer returns to reverse the spell and dry up the shop.

Dukas’ music matches the magic, the joy and the tension of this story perfectly. It starts out with a incredibly slow statement of the melody. At each new twist of the story, this theme is picked up by a different instrument and sped up until by the time of the flooding, the cymbals are crashing like thunder and the strings are playing glissandos that evoke the roiling of the waters.

Dukas, though not a prolific composer, had a profound effect on 20th century music. He taught Ravel, De Falla, and Rodrigo. Thier their works all show traces of the highly imagistic and vivid writing of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And according to my research, Disney’s film was responsible for the reawakening of interest in this work. So like my Italian friend, Gianfranco says, whad ya gonna do?

Dukas’ Biography

Download MP3 or buy CD of Dukas: Sorcerer’s Apprentice

%d bloggers like this: