Summer Reruns–Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Bach supposedly wrote these 30 variations on a simple theme for the insomniacal Count Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador to the kingdom of Saxony. Musical scholars agree they represent the pinnacle of baroque keyboard technique. Their name became associated with the count’s harpsichordist, Johann Goldberg, who was only 14 when they were written. Keyserlingk was so pleased with the work that he gave Bach a goblet filled with 100 Louis D’Or.

I will leave it to others to analyze the music, for example this page is devoted to the nine canons in the variations. In addition to canons, Bach also took the melody and turned it into fugues, arias, French overtures and a quodlibet. These variations are known for being killers–one for example requires the pianist to play with both hands crossed all the way through. They are intricate and meticulously crafted, and though Bach wrote few variations on themes, these are considered the text book examples of how to do so.

A couple of years ago, I was in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in Accra, Ghana, when someone started playing the Goldberg Variations baby grand piano in the small lobby next to the bar.  It blew me away, of course, to hear it in such an unexpected place, but even more of a treat was being able to sit almost beside the pianist and watch him play.   It turns out he was just the accompaniast for an American soprano who was performing that night.

I first heard the piece, when I was living in the French House of Indiana University, in 1975.

There was an irony to living at the French House–few people living there actually made a point of speaking French. It took too much effort and no one really policed us. A native French resident assistant (RA) did live there both of my years there, but he didn’t have the time to go snooping in on every conversation. During the first year, when the RA, Olivier, did try to get the other members of my clique to speak French, they would do so with the most hideously American accent, and that would shut him up.

Once a week, the French Department would encourage other native speakers and students to come to our cafeteria and sit at the French table, and that was more rigorous. Or they would organize lectures and slide shows in the lounge of our dorm. It was still intimidating to me, who’d never been abroad, and who’d only been lectured to in a kind of academic French, which as different from spoken French as Dickens is to American rap vernacular.

There was a guy in my dorm who was nearly bi-lingual, and I once witnessed Olivier correct him when he made an almost imperceptible pronunciation mistake. It wasn’t like it prevented him from understanding the message, it was sheer one-upsmanship and linguistic (and even cultural) chauvinism. You see, no French person can bear to hear anyone butcher his language.

If you want to learn to speak a langauge, one of the worst ways to go about it is to study it in college. The best way is to have a love affair with a native speaker. The second best way is to go to the country. In university, they usually start with grammar, which is unfortunate, since language changes more rapidly than compilers of grammar books and dictionaries can keep up with. Psycholinguists have shown that learning a language requires mastering a complex blend of psycho-motor, cognitive, and conceptual skills some of which atrophy by the time we get into our late teens. We can learn a second language as an adult, but rarely well enough to be taken as a native speaker, and it takes a long time.

The reason I bring this up is that–despite this psychological fact–years ago when I was learning French, native speakers would not cut you any slack at all when trying to learn their language. To the credit of the French educational system, school children in France are taught to revere their language and use it effectively and efficiently both orally and in writing. Every year, the French newspaper,  Le Monde, publishes what is considered to be the best final essay which every high school student must pass in order to matriculate to college. Some of these read like philosophical tracts.

Being shy, that pretty much sucked all the enthusiasm out of my trying to speak French, and I didn’t learn to do so until after graduate school, when I went to Algeria to teach English. Algeria, being a former French colony, had a bilingual population, and being Muslims, prided themselves on being good hosts. They would never correct you, and so there I became comfortable enough to loosen my tongue and made more progress there in 6 months than I had in four years of university study.

This might make it sound like I have something against the French. One thing everybody has to learn is to rely on themselves–their inherent worth–despite how other people react. That was something that I learned only 20 years later and forget from time to time. Other people were much thicker skinned than I was back in the 1970s and learned to speak French.

The French Resident Assistant, who moved into the French House in the fall of 1975, ended up becoming one of my better friends and I still keep in touch, looking him up whenever I am in Paris, where he now lives. His name is Jean-Marc Fernandez, and perhaps we became friends because he actually grew up in Algeria, coming to France after his father was killed there during the revolution in 1962.

Like so many French, Jean-Marc had a lust for all facets of life–the intellectual as well as the artistic. He had come to Indiana University to work on a PHd in political science and business. He spoke Spanish and could hold his own in German and Russian. JM had done his masters degree in American literature and was better-read than I was in the authors of my own country. He also loved film and classical music, preferring, of course, French composers.

The first day he moved into the French, he was surprised to see that an old friend of his, Rosemary Bourgault had moved into a room on the girl’s floor. They immediately became an item and eventually married. But again, he had eclectic tastes and I believe I heard today’s piece, Bach’s Goldberg Variations in his room. It was around that time period that someone had made a film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Slaughterhouse Five which used some of the pieces from the Variations in the sound track. Jean-Marc liked the movie and I think had a copy of the recording.

Glenn Gould seems to be the foremost interpreter of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and I recently heard this 1959 recording he made.

It’s in mono, but I like the youthful interpretation.  Compare it to the earlier version and tell me if you prefer one to the other.

Summer Reruns–Camille Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals

In my past few posts, I’ve been describing my first experiences living in Paris in 1977. (See longer post below.) Since my first weeks in Paris seemed like a chaotic carnival, I’ve chosen the Saint-Saens piece today, simply for the title. The work really has nothing to do with chaos, and in fact, Saint-Saens was clearly a traditional composer who at the end of his life was horrified by the impressionism of Debussy and dissonance of Stravinsky. In fact, because he did not embrace the new composers, he became a bit reviled, but he actually was one of the greatest French composers of the 19th century. Because he had been a prodigy and then composed rapidly and prolifically, he has been dubbed the “French Mendelssohn.”

It is ironic that Saint-Saëns is best known for Carnival of the Animals and especially the movement for cello entitled “The Swan.” Saint-Saëns himself was worried that it would not be taken seriously by the critics of his day so he forbade its publication. It did not see the light of day until after his death and it instantly entered into the repertory. His fear was justified—most people don’t regard him as a “heavy-weight.” That is too bad. I know it kept me from approaching his work seriously and I was blown away a couple of weeks ago when I heard a movement from one of his violin concertos, which I would rank among the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.

Saint-Saens Biography

My Carnival in Paris
My last few entries have focused on my arrival in Paris in January of 1977. Looking back over my journal entries from those first days there has proven difficult for me. When writing this post, I discovered a cache of letters that I had written at the time to my friend, Thom Klem, who remained in Bloomington, Indiana and shared an apartment with another acquaintance, David T**. At one point in our friendship, he thought it important to sent me back all my letters, for which I am eternally grateful. Otherwise, my memories of that time period might have metamorphosed into more rosy ones. Truth be told, it’s interesting to see the patterns of the depression that eventually overtook me. It also makes me marvel at how my friends remained friends despite all my wild mood swings.

During those first weeks in Paris, I went from elation and fascination to abject misery. As I mentioned, I fell right into a ready-made community of Americans who were on their junior year abroad. They were nice enough—they gave me leads on places to stay, escorted me around Paris, invited me to dinners, went to movies with me, and over all acted quite civilly toward me. Unfortunately, I had little in common with them. The all went to a private university, which meant they came from fairly well to do families. Their careers were charted for them—doctors, lawyers, MBAs. Coming from a working class background and wanting to be an artist, I felt somewhat out of place among them.

Everyone seemed paired up as well, which fed into my depression and made me feel profoundly lonely. There was a rather raw-boned, opinionated girl in the clique who took a fancy to me, but I could not find it in me to reciprocate and ended up hurting her feelings. There was one guy, who I became closer to, a Vietnamese immigrant who had been adopted by a car dealer and his wife in somewhere like Kentucky. His name was Thai H**, and I think we hit it off because we both felt like outsiders.

Thai’s mother and father had been active in the government in South Vietnam during the Vietnam war. Fearing for their children, they pulled some diplomatic strings and managed to send their child off to the US to some nice Christian couple. Thai quickly mastered English and was something of a mathematical and engineering whiz kid and was enrolled at Rice College in Texas. After Vietnam fell in 1975, his mother and father were captured by the communists and rehabilitated. When I met him in Paris, he was anguished—his mother had gotten in touch with him and was putting pressure on him to return to Vietnam and give up his posh, bourgeois life-style in the States. He had started tapping into the sizeable Vietnamese community in Paris and had even started reading some Marxist literature.

On my good days, he and I would go exploring Paris—visiting St. Etienne Du Mont church in the Latin Quarter behind the Pantheon and Sorbonne, or Sacre Coeur, Saint Chapelle, or other little gems in Paris. On bad days, I would find myself riding around on the subway for hours, as I went investigating pitiful rooms for rent at exorbitant prices. Any time things didn’t go the way I wanted, I took it personally and used it as an excuse for vilifying the city or its inhabitants. I had come with the intention of learning to speak French, but when I opened my mouth Parisians would instantly detect my accent and start speaking to me in English—sometimes English that was worse than my French. What else did I find to hate—oh yes: the weather in Paris. It seemed to rain every day and I ended up caching a horrible cold.

Originally I had intended to study French, but it that fell through. The crowd suggested going to the Alliance Francaise, but then others counseled against it. I might get stuck in a class of people from non-Indo-European language families, they warned. After become a language teacher years later, I realized that might not have been such a bad thing. We would have only been able to use French as our lingua franca, and we might have become friends. (And I might have gotten invited to some neat parties with interesting food.)

The last straw came when I thought I had finally found a room only to have it fall through. A friend of a friend had shared a flat and his roommate had moved out. I was a shoe-in. But then for some reason, he changed his mind. I figured hanging out with this group of ex-pats wasn’t doing anything for my French, so I decided to leave Paris. My plan was to head to points south—Marseilles, Cannes, or Nice—find a small cheap hotel and spend my time writing and hanging out with the locals. My grandmother had given me the address of distant cousins who reportedly lived in Grenoble. Another fallback plan was to go visit them if things didn’t work out in the south.

After that, I started feeling better emotionally. My cold, however, worsened and as I boarded the train headed for Marseilles, I began to worry about my cold. I had developed an intense sore throat and hacking cough. What if I got sick and died in a squalid little hovel on the côte d’azur?

As you’ve guessed by now, that didn’t happen and though I pity the poor tortured soul I was back then, that trip to the south of France turned out to be just what I needed.

A to Z: O is for Marbrianus de Orto

A2Z-BADGE-0002015-LifeisGood-230_zps660c38a0 Today is day 15 of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge in which I attempt to blog every day (excepting Sundays) throughout the month of April. For this challenge, I am curating a collection of “classical” music pieces, which are lesser known or by lesser known composers (to me at least).

Today’s composer is Marbrianus de Orto (1460-1529).


Wow. Had never hear of Marbrianus until yesterday. He was the illegitimate son of a priest (go figure) who lived a hundred years before Monteverdi. A contemporary and probably a friend of Josquin Des Prez, he also composed motets, songs, and lamentations. De orto was an Italian translation of his birth name, du Jardin (of the garden). Why is this important? Despite being illegitimate he was singled out for his voice by a nobleman who installed him in his court. After the nobleman died, he ended up in Rome the darling of a couple of Popes. He’s noted for being on of the first to compose a canonical (row row row your boat) setting of the Catholic mass. This music is the missing link between medieval and Renaissance and unlike some of the joyous Renaissance pieces like those of say Praetorius, Mabrianus sounds dignified, grounded, yet deeply moving. Not sure why Jeremiah lamented. Anyone know?

Lamentatio Jeremie Prophete a 4 by Marbrianus de Orto

The composer’s Wikipedia page Marbrianus de Orto

Blogging from A to Z April Challenge: H is for Barbara Heller

A2Z-BADGE-0002015-LifeisGood-230_zps660c38a0 This is day 8 of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge in which I attempt to blog every day (excepting Sundays) throughout the month of April. For this challenge, I am curating a collection of “classical” music pieces, which are lesser known or by lesser known composers (to me at least).Today’s composer is Barbara Heller(b. 1936).


I’ve been trying, this month, to alternate between male and female composers. It’s no easy task. Wikipedia lists composers by name, and really out of each alphabetical entry, among hundreds of men, there are normally only two or three women.

“In Bewegung”

My searches however are more than rewarded when I find a female composer. Take today’s composer, Barbara Heller. In WW II, Heller’s home was bombed in 1943 and her family moved to Mannheim where she studied music and taught herself composition. Since then she has promoted female composers, organizing one of the first big festivals on women in music in 1980. Since retiring from performing in 1990, she’s been part of a group, “Bluna Bluna,” which, according to Wikipedia, creates “tape compositions, sound installations, audio-visual exhibition projects and improvisations.”

The composer’s Wikipedia page Barbara Heller

Blogging from A to Z April Challenge: G is for Percy Grainger

A2Z-BADGE-0002015-LifeisGood-230_zps660c38a0 This is day 7 of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge in which I attempt to blog every day (excepting Sundays) throughout the month of April. For this challenge, I am curating a collection of “classical” music pieces, which are lesser known or by lesser known composers (to me at least).Today’s composer is Percy Grainger (1882-1961).


Grainger was a good-looking Australian from Melbourne who’s father that emigrated there from London where he was an architect that built a famous bridge. He grew up in an upper class family who hobbed nobbed with the likes of Nelly Melba. His father however was a philanderer who gave his mother syphilis, and she left him and took young Percy to Frankfurt where, a prodigy, he studied music.

Faroe Island Dance Tune “Let’s Dance Gay in Green Meadow”

By all accounts his mother Rose was a stern disciplinarian, which eventually some theorize led to favor sado-masochism. Later in life after his father died, he became so close to his mother that there were allegations of incest. However, it seems he preferred whips, a collection of which along with a collection of his BSDM paraphernalia (including bloody shirts and ethnic music from Norway, England, Denmark and New Zealand), he installed in a museum he built to himself in Melbourne.

As mentioned, he did collect on Edison cylinders a vast work of ethnic music and was part of the English Folk-song revival, which included Ralph Vaughn Williams and Delius. He wove these melodies into his works and was performed his own works along with the standard repertoire of piano music in concerts he used to support himself quite handsomely.

Unfortunately, influence by Nordic culture, he became a raving anti-semite but ended up loathing German music, so that makes it all right, no? Not.

I’d never consciously listen to him, so I’d like my readers to tell me–does his music transcend his f***ed views and therefore warrant further listening?

The composer’s Wikipedia page Percy Grainger

Blogging from A to Z April Challenge: F is for Elena Olegovna Firsova

A2Z-BADGE-0002015-LifeisGood-230_zps660c38a0 This is day 6 of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge in which I attempt to blog every day (excepting Sundays) throughout the month of April. For this challenge, I am curating a collection of “classical” music pieces, which are lesser known or by lesser known composers (to me at least).Today’s composer is Elena Olegovna Firsova (b. 1950).

Before the Thunderstorm (1994)”

This piece is very 20th Century a-tonal and it sets to music a poem by the poet Osip Mandelstahm.

The composer’s Wikipedia page Elena Firsova

Blogging from A to Z April Challenge: C is for Geneviève Calame

A2Z-BADGE-0002015-LifeisGood-230_zps660c38a0 This is day 3 of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge in which I attempt to blog every day (excepting Sundays) throughout the month of April. For this challenge, I am curating a collection of “classical” music pieces, which are lesser known or by lesser known composers (to me at least).Today’s composer is Geneviève Calame (1946-1993).

Genvieve Calame was a Swiss composer who studied piano in Geneva and the Rome. From there she went on to London to study composition with Pierre Boulez. She was one of the key female composers of electronic music in its early days especially in combining with computer generated video as in today’s piece: Labyrinthes Fluides.

The composer’s Wikipedia page Geneviève Calame

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