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

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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

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