Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto Number 1 in A Minor, BWV 1041 for violin

I first heard this piece in 1976 during the start of my senior year at Indiana University where I was studying French literature (see below).  Unlike E Major concerto I wrote about the other day, the minor scale gives the piece a sad undertone, which reminds me a bit of Vivaldi’s “Winter.”  Since Bach studied Vivaldi, that makes sense.

Bach Biography

Buy CDs or download MP3s of Bach’s Violin Concertos

My Garret

The fall of 1976 saw me returning to Indiana University for the first semester of my senior year. I moved into a small basement room of an apartment building that my girlfriend, Linda, had found during the summer. You couldn’t beat the price:  free. This was great as it allowed me to keep most of the money I had saved working in the factory that summer to pay for a semester abroad I was planning for January of 1977 in Paris.  The hitch was that I had to serve as the janitor for the middle section of the building. That required me to sweep the stairwell every day and mop it and the floors in the laundry room about once a week.

It seemed like a sweet deal, but I soon learned it had many drawback. First there was the room–it was literally a converted storage closet, about five feet wide and 10 feet long. On one wall was a set of shelves that served as dresser, bookshelf, and larder. On the other was a mirror and a small ledge where I could put my stereo. The desk sat at the end of the room under a small window through which I could catch a glimpse of the sky. It lack space for a bed, so every night I would put down the mattress that remained propped up against the wall.

The worst thing about the room was the noise. Heating pipes ran through it and hung several inches from the ceiling. When the heat came on, they started to creak and had the soothing effect of a tap dripping. To the left of my cubby hole sat the communal washers and dryers. The residents came at all hours of the night to do their laundry. Often I was awakened at 2:00 AM by the pounding of a pair of gym shoes clunking around in the drum of the dryer. I tried to readjust my schedule and slip back home during the day to sleep, but there was a day care center across the street from my little window and in the afternoons my room was filled with the whoops and cries of kids playing on the swings and monkey bars.

And finally there was the family that lived right above my room. The apartment complex was one of the choicest places off campus to live. It had been build in the 30s out of dark red brick, it had huge picture windows and the floors were made of lovely, golden oak. The family above me had a young child whom they let roller skate on these floors!

Oh the place wasn’t without it’s charm. My “kitchen” sat behind a steel door, down a flight of concrete stairs an and beside a great gas furnace in the boiler room. It consisted of a little gas stove, an old Formica and chrome table with two chairs, and a small cupboard. From time to time, the drains would back up and the floor of the boiler room would be covered with about an inch of raw sewage. I also had to cross through the boiler room and travel up another flight of stairs to get to bathroom. This was a ramshackle little space created in the corner of a storage room and had wobbly walls, a shower stall, as sink and a toilet. The commode sat, I soon realized, under the bedroom of a very active couple. The one highlight of my day was going for my post-prandial evacuation in the evening and listening to their grunts, groans, moans and shouts.

This apartment building stood on the West side of campus, whereas the French House was located on the East edge. The West side was closer to the old downtown part of Bloomington, and thus, had a few more interesting local hang-outs. Some of these began to form the basis of a new set of interests, which have become core to my being. Down the hill from my apartment, for example, sat a vegetarian restaurant called The Tao. It was run by an ashram led by a swami who drove a Porsche. The ashram ran a bakery and was attracting more and more disaffected, and dumb, kids of affluent families. It was a good place to hang out Sunday mornings having a Danish, drinking a cup of good coffee (before the days of Starbucks) and doing the Times crossword puzzle. Down the block, a Korean graduate student named Moon started a little oriental grocery store, which opened up the possibilities of a whole new cuisine to me. A few block down the road sat a co-op, where I used to work a few hours a week and load up on whole grains and my favorite herb, dried peppermint, which I would brew up as my morning tea. A few blocks further, sat two great used bookstores, one new and another used record store, and a Greek restaurant. Finally, in a little corner set of shops called Dunkirk Square sat a little coffee shop called “Two Bit Rush,” which was one the first espresso bar in town. (It got its namee because you could get a demitasse of espresso for 25 cents–two bits).  Even after I moved out of my hovel, for the next 3 years I pretty much spent all of my free time between these shops and they became the focus of my social and cultural life.

One piece of music that dates from this time, is today’s violin concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, by J.S. Bach.

Just the thing to accompany a meal of falafel and rice, while sitting in the garret, to drown out the sounds of the gurgling pipes.

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Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto

In 1975, my first long-term girlfriend, Lacy, and I had a fairly comfortable relationship. We shared very similar tastes in art, literature and music, and this fact made us pretty compatible. That is why we stayed together for around two years. At the beginning at least we just liked hanging out with each other.


The artsy campy crowd in my dorm that I hung out with seemed to approve of our relationship. At least we were still included in invitations to parties, excursions to our local favorite bar, “Bear’s Place,” and outings to symphony and opera performances.

Indiana University, as I have mentioned before, has a huge music school. To give you an idea of how big, in 1975 they had five full student orchestras, ranging from so-so to superb. The school also mounted a full opera season of works not only from the standard repertoire, but also modern works as well. And they didn’t just focus on Baroque to Early Modern. They had a serious Jazz studies program with its own orchestra, an early music ensemble, an electronic music studio, and they premiered a number of works by contemporary composers.

Once Lacy, who played the upright bass, came back from class very angry. Her orchestra had been rehearsing a work by some modern composer. She said they all turned the page in one section and the composer’s instructions were something like “improvise.” “That’s cheating!” she yelled.  “That’s not composing.”

So Lacy and I probably went out to see a concert at least once a week. The people in the French House read the daily listing of concerts and student recitals in the student newspaper, and we also went out en masse. Once we all organized an outing to go see the school’s production of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” The school announced that they would break up the five-hour performance with a two-hour intermission and start a bit early. That way, people could watch the first half of the opera, go to dinner, and come back for the conclusion. Our group decided to go to a posh restaurant in Bloomington called Sully’s Oaken Bucket and regale ourselves with a fine meal.

The sets for the opera had been done by a German professor in the school of music or theater. His claim to fame was having done the set for some opera at the Met in New York. He had tried a German Expressionist approach and had used virtually no props, creating an inward-looking mood by using only blue lighting.

What a bore! Someone had once told me that what made Wagner so great was that he had merged music with drama and–as director of his own opera house in Bayreuth–he had created a perfect multi-media event. Well for this production they had stripped it down to just three elements–voice, orchestra, and lighting. Part of the charm of opera, for me at least, is the pomp and theatricality and pageantry of it all. Even if one part, say the acting, is bad, you still have the singing, the costumes, the sets, and the music to stimulate you. This production of Parsifal was almost abstract and you were held captive by the hours and hours of sung dramatic text without any melody.

By the time intermission came, we bolted for the door and headed for our restaurant. This was the first time I eaten in a fancy restaurant as an adult with a group of my peers, and I must confess to being a little put off by the prices. Being the child of parents who’d lived through the Great Depression, I was used to always pinching pennies, looking for bargains, scrounging at garage sales and rarely splurging on something so extravagant and ephemeral as a fancy meal. I did manage to find a dish which fell in my price range–a shrimp curry, I believe–which wasn’t spectacular but did the job. I enjoyed the company however, the conversation and maybe even a glass of wine. Oddly enough we didn’t hurry back to the opera and ended up arriving about ½ hour late for the second part. The meal and the hour both conspired against me and I have to confess to falling asleep.

Fortunately, the school that year also produced Verdi’s Rigoletto and they went all out on the sets and costumes. One scene took place in the Duke’s palace and they had constructed a huge raised dance floor with a grand staircase leading up to it that was painted to look like marble with gold leaf. I think that one of the guys in my dorm, who was majoring in dance or theatre, auditioned and got a part as one of the dancer during the ballroom scene. The singing was superb and the orchestra on top form that night and it met all my criteria for a great production.

Verdi received a commission early in his career to write an opera for the Fenice theatre in Venice. He had been influenced by tragedies like Hamlet and King Lear but eventually settled on Victor Hugo’s play, Le Roi S’Amuse. Verdi and his librettist had to rework the story several times in order to get past the censors who did not take kindly to the portrayal of kings as scoundrels or suffer things like curses on stage, which might inflame the clergy. They changed the king to a Duke but left him a cad. The court jester is one Rigoletto, who though he plays the buffoon, sees the debauchery of the Duke and his court.  Because he is deformed, he justifies his own intriguing to pit the different male characters against one another. He has a beautiful daughter named Gilda, whom he keeps sequestered far away from the influence of the Duke.

This opera has several famous arias. In “Questa o Quella” the Duke sings about his amorous adventures and how one girl is just as good as another. Later, he sings the famous, “La Donna e Mobile” in which he describes all women as fickle and only good for one thing. Eventually it turns out that the Duke has managed to seduce Rigoletto’s daughter.  Rigoletto plots revenge. By a strange twist of fate, the thugs Rigoletto sends to murder the Duke accidentally kill his daughter instead, and deliver the body to him in a sack. He opens the bag to find his dying daughter and realize the curse that he has brought on himself.

Verdi wrote this opera in something like 40 days at the age of 37. Though over 150 years old, the base motivations for power and conquest still seem as applicable to our modern world as it was to Verdi’s.  These days, I think the modern malaise is is the desire to make excuses for dropping one’s own morals in the face of those in power who do so.  Nice guys finish last also has become a mantra in my home country.  Maybe so, but once you compromise your morals, it’s over.

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Alexander Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy

I chose to write about Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, which Michael Dr***, a student of Turkish, Chinese and music composition (and a regular visitor to the French House), introduced me to around the fall of 1975. Scriabin was something of a mystic and was influenced by the philosophy of Nietzsche and the theosophists. Nietzsche, you will remember, wrote about the Apollonian (intellectual) and Dionysian (sensual, ecstatic) natures and the need to incorporate both. Well, the Poem of Ecstasy conveys a sense of losing oneself in sensual desire, a continuous sense of building anticipation, and a final climactic release and obliteration of the ego. I get all sweaty just writing about it.

In the fall of 1975, (and after having spent the summer working in a lamp assembly plant), I was happy to return to the French House. I had requested an end room, which was a little larger than the others in the dorm. Unfortunately, being next to the entrance and therefore the stairwell, it turned out to be noisier–with people coming and going at all hours of the day and night.

My end room had a very important perk, though. Often, when I was studying in my room, I would leave the door open. Visitors to the dorm, seeing my light on, would often knock on my door and ask where so-and-do lived. Thus, I became the functional concierge of the French House, which, being somewhat of an extravert, I actually thrived on.

My mother has always shown almost fanatical interest in things related to health, nutrition and fitness. Back in the 1960s she started leading exercise classes at the local YMCA where she worked as a lifeguard. Toward the end of the decade, she became more and more interested in nutrition–which changed our family’s diet as she started buying health foods, using less salt, and growing organic vegetables and herbs in my father’s garden. My father, by the way loved, to see things grow. During the summer, he would work 9 hours a day in a factory and then come home and spend the remaining daylight hours working on his garden. I used to think he was crazy and rebuffed his efforts to get me to help. But eventually I learned to appreciate the near-meditative state into which gardening can lead you. Whenever I left for college in Bloomington after summer break, therefore, my parents would load me up with fresh vegetables and dried herbs, one of which, peppermint, our family had gotten into the habit brewing into an infusion which we would drink instead of coffee or tea.

A number of new people had moved into the French House in the fall of 1975, and I tried to get to know them as well. I had a little hotplate used to heat water and when people would drop in, and I would offer them cups of peppermint tea. This was one of the best things about living in the dorm: you could have a salon where people would pop ‘round to chat, have a deep discussion, get drunk, gossip, listen to music, or just socialize.

One late night, as I was getting ready for bed, someone started pounding on my door. A female voice said, “Kurt!” “Kurt! Open up.” I opened the door and there stood Kristy (name changed to protect the innocent) a woman whom I had met the year before. Kristy lived in the Spanish House, which was connected to the French House by our common lounge, and she was a very intelligent, exuberant and forward person. Whenever we ran into each other in the cafeteria, we exchanged witty remarks, but I never thought she’d be interested in me. This night, Kristy had been drinking, and she was intent on seducing me. I will never forget the excitement I felt when that realization dawned on me (and that I hadn’t even had to go through the whole pursuit and rejection dance). My heart pounded and my stomach filled with a mass of butterflies, and our night spent together was sublime.

I spent the next day walking on clouds. Later that evening, I paid a visit to Kristy at her house off campus into which she had moved with two other women from the Spanish House. We cooked a nice dinner, listened to music, danced, and then Kristy dumped me. I spent the next five years or wondering why.  We did stay friends, and for a long time, she remained the archetypal woman for me. On the down side, it caused me to approach relationships with women with my guard up, for fear of being hurt. My guard consisted of keeping an intellectual and emotional distance from the women I became involved with. I never allowed myself to fall in love and usually found some reason to dump them pre-emptively: they either weren’t as smart as Kristy, or pretty, or didn’t hold the same feminist views as she did. Building this shell, turned out to be my loss, really, because it kept me from really connecting with people who were no doubt quite decent and loving people. Oh well–that’s one of those lessons it takes some people years to learn. Or as Joni Mitchell put it–“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?  From ecstasy to insularity.  Eventually I found ecstasy again many years later.

Scriabin Biography

Buy MP3 or CD Alexander Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy – Valery Gergiev / Kirov Orchestra

Mahler, Gustav: Symphony Number 1 in D

By the end of the first semester of my sophomore year in college in 1974, I had pretty much had it with my dorm. Nowadays, I recognize that my own aloofness had a large role to play in this. Even I have a tendency to label as a nerd someone who lives too much in an effete, overly intellectual world, cut off from others. At the same time, I believe it was Henry Steel Commager who first wrote about the anti-intellectual streak in us Americans. And I can’t honestly say that my fellow dorm mates would have voted me Mr. Congeniality.

Take Saturday nights. That was a bigger party night than Fridays, since you didn’t have classes to get in the way of your spending the day stoned, finding where the good parties would be, or buying booze for your own bash. I usually spent the day in the library and would come home to unwind preferably with a martini. If I wanted to be gregarious, I’d put on some classical piece and magnanimously open my door as an invitation to my fellow dorm mates to come in for a chat. One such night as I sat, maybe listening to today’s piece, the guys down the hall were having a terrific rave-up. On a trip to the communal toilet, I ran into one of the guys who, drunk, lit into me with a salvo of invectives.

“You’re so superior! You think you’re better than anyone else. You never join in.”

I was non-plussed. I never actively harbored any grudges against them as people; I just got mad at them when they interfered with my sleep. I tried to explain to him that I harbored him no ill-will, indeed that I thought he and his chums were quite likeable and only wished him well. He blinked and his friends dragged him away.

Later that evening back in my room, one of them, noted for his clownish drunken behavior, stumbled down the corridor and seeing my open door stopped and fell flat on his face in my doorway. His friends stood in the hallway laughing. He turned his face skyward to me and said “Hi Kurt!” and started to go green. “Hey, get him out of here!” I yelled to them. “He’s going to puke!” but it was too late, and he spilled the contents of his stomach on my carpet.

So you can imagine how excited I was shortly thereafter, when my French teacher, Starr, told me about a dorm called the French House. It was situated in an old part of campus dedicated to graduate dorms, and like the Spanish, Russian, German houses it was a place where you were supposed only to speak a foreign language.

I went along and paid a visit to the dorm, which was a long, low two-story edifice built during the Second World War for G.I.s studying languages. The language houses sat in a small meadow, clustered around a small creek, and it had a nice pastoral feeling about it. You had to apply, and Starr recommended me, so I got an interview with the admission board. I didn’t speak French very well, which they soon noticed, so they asked me why I wanted to live there. That was easy–I couldn’t afford a junior year abroad, so I wanted to live there to learn French. They accepted me, and that made living in my hi-rise dorm for the rest of the semester bearable.

Now thinking back on the pastoral setting of the French house, Mahler’s Symphony Number 1 in D seems kind of fitting. Written between Mahler’s 24 and 28th years, it is an astoundingly mature work, even if he manages to weave in some very naïve themes. This work for me has strong natural associations. Perhaps it is the use of a two-note, cuckoo motive in the first movement or the other twiddly bits in that movement that make me think of a walk in the woods or a sunny meadow. Mahler entitled the first movement, “Spring without End,” which means he was trying to evoke the wonder of nature in his musical images.

To me the entire symphony is full of surprises. In the fourth movement he builds an entire orchestral fugue around the theme, “Frere Jacques. In the third movement, he uses the familiar theme, “Three Blind Mice,” and later he launches off into a march led by a clarinet that sounds a bit like a Klezmer band. He also borrows from himself, using a theme in the first movement from his own “Songs of a Wayfarer.” The last movement sometimes seems a bit over the top in its full blown, almost hyper Romanticism. Hey, but who isn’t full of swagger in their late teens and early twenties? From what I’ve said above, you know I can’t go pointing any fingers.

Mahler Biography

Download MP3s or buy CD of Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major

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