June 17. Stravinsky and Gounod’s Birthday

Today is the birthday of the French composer Charles Gounod, (1818 – 1893) and Igor Stravinsky ( June 17, 1882 – April 6, 1971.)

The Funeral March is probably one of the first pieces of classical music I ever heard.  In the 1960s, when I grew up, the US was in still in the midst of the Golden Age of television.   It was still a fairly new medium, and it brought a whole world of art and culture into small, backwater towns like my own, Mishawaka, Indiana.  Shows like The Man From Uncle, The Ernie Kovacs Show, The Invaders, I-Spy, Westinghouse Theatre, Saturday Night at the Theatre, The Jackie Gleason Show, and The Twilight Zone let us experience, in our own living room, drama, comedy, music, dance,the supernatural and life in the old west and modern Manhattan.  Every night after dinner we gathered around the TV as a family and watched our favorite program chosen from only one of the three channels we received.  I remember sitting with my parents, watching Sing Along With Mitch (Miller), which commanded us to sing the lyrics that appeared on the screen in time to a white ball that hopped from syllable to syllable along with the music. I’m feeling a bit nostalgic now for that.  What family sings together any more?

One program we loved was “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” whose short murder mysteries were introduced by the director himself.  He performed his plummy, congested monologues in a perfect deadpan British accent while acting out absurd and macabre skits.  The theme music to the show was Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette.  We only knew it as the “Funeral March,” and as soon as we heard it, we’d come running to the living room to watch.  I still think of the pudgy director whenever i hear it.

Here’s his wikipedia entry.

Igor Stravinsky’s fascinates me more than just about any other composer.  I’ve written about him a lot on this blog, here, here, and here for example.  He wrote Tango for piano in 1940 and later participated in turning it into a chamber piece.

Respighi: Six Pieces for Solo Piano (Scherbakov)

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’ve not paid much attention to the work of Ottorino Respighi. Oh, I know he wrote “The Pines of Rome,” and “The Fountains of Rome,” and “Festivals of Rome.” For godssake, I even lived in Rome and have seen the pines, some festivals and hundreds of fountains. But if you asked me to hum something from one of these piece, I’d be hard-pressed.
Not that I haven’t heard them like, a thousand times, since they used to get played again and again on the local classical radio channels, especially on the call-in request shows.

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? If Respighi plays in the background, did I actually hear it? He was 17 years younger than Debussy, and I tend to pigeon-hole him either in the Impressionist school, or maybe as an anachronism like Rachmaninoff–poised between Romantic and Cubist or Atonal music.

He was first noted for his violin and viola virtuosity, playing in string quartets as as principle violist in St. Petersburg, with the Russian Imperial Theatre. While in Russia he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, and later, living in Germany, reportedly studied with Max Bruch.

Returning to Rome, he taught composition at the St. Cecilia Conservatory, where he managed to weather the Mussolini years trying to remain a-political though he did promote his music for nationalistic purposes. At the same time, he championed more vocal critics of fascism like Aurturo Toscanini.

Today, I’m posting something I stumbled upon while surfing youtube. It’s six pieces for solo piano. From Wikipedia, I see that he wrote operas, ballets, symphonic works, quite a few chamber pieces. His list of works does not include any works for piano, so maybe I should update the Wikipedia entry. Do any of you know anything about his piano works that you can steer me to?

Here’s a piano sonata I just found.

Beethoven String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131

As I said in an earlier post, in the fall of 1973 in the first semester of my freshman year in college I lived in place called Gemini House, which was full of science majors, with whom I had little in common. There was one exception–an upper classman named Truell West. Truell had too much on the ball to be labeled a “hippie,” but he had a full beard and long hair and didn’t quite fit the mold of the rest of the guys in the house. He was well versed in classical music and he even had a violin, which he said he had studied for a number of years. He was quite personable, and I used to hang out in his room, talking about music, art and literature. I suppose I thought of him as a potential mentor, but we never really clicked that way.

The previous summer, I had bought a second-hand violin in a pawn shop for $50. So I tried to get Truell to teach me how to play it. He showed me some fingering, but as anyone knows who’s taken lessons, the violin is very hard to play, and I soon abandoned my attempts. I think Truell was relieved. Who needs an pimply-faced geek hanging around when you’re about to graduate?

Truell kept on top of the schedules of performing arts at Purdue and told me when there was something good coming up that he thought I would enjoy. Once, he and I climbed into his old Volkswagen beetle and went to the local Catholic church to participate in a sing-in of Handel’s Messiah. Another time, he told me that a famous string quartet was coming and we got tickets. It turned out to be the Guarneri Quartet, who played on instruments made by the Guarneri family, which like the Stradivari and Amati families, came from Cremona. It turns that this quartet is based at the University of Maryland, near where I now live.

The evening I saw the Guarneri Quartet, they played Beethoven’s String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131, of which Stravinsky said “Everything in this masterpiece is perfect, inevitable, unalterable.” Until then I don’t believe I’d ever listened to a string quartet, let alone seen one performed. Oh perhaps I did see some television show or movie which had a string quartet sawing away in a corner at a ball, but the Guarneri performance had nothing to do with that. As you probably know by now, I am given to hyperbole and have used the word “galvanize” to describe my emotion before just about every piece I’ve written about so far. If any piece of music ever galvanized me, however, it was this quartet.

With seven movements, it is by far the longest of Beethoven’s quartets, but don’t let its length daunt you. Beethoven wrote this the year before he died and three years after his Symphony Number 9. Since he was only 57 at the time, we can say he was at the height of his powers. I seem to recall reading somewhere that Beethoven regarded the string quartet as the greatest form, even more expressive than symphonies. Once, at a performance of the Third Symphony at Catholic University, I saw that Beethoven would start a melody in the first violins, move it to the seconds, then to the violas and finally to the cellos. Those four instruments, of course, comprise the string quartet, but the tight playing of the Opus 131 quartet could not be achieved in the symphonic form. Indeed where you tend to be carried along majestically in many symphonies supported by the lush melodies, in a string quartet you’re rushing along at 1000 miles an hour in the nose cone of a missile. (Oops. Hyperbole again.) But listen to the presto movement, if you don’t believe me. I found the sheet music to the quartet in a garage sale once and followed along. It was exciting: the notes seemed to fly off the page.

After that semester, I lost touch with Truell. Though he did not become my mentor, he did me a great favor by turning me on to this piece. This quartet is not melodious in the sense that it has few “hum-able” tunes in it, but it contains beautifully lyrical passages that transport you with their depth of feeling. I cannot recommend any more highly this piece to anyone wanting to listen to a great piece of classical music.

Wikipedia entry on this Quartet

Download CD or the Quartet or Buy CD from Amazon

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