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.

Frederic Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in b-flat minor

When I started this blog, my original goal was to write about a different piece of classical music every day.   I really had no idea where it would end up taking me, or whether I could actually come up with 365 pieces of music, let alone something interesting to say about each one.   It started out as a way of forcing me to write every day, which is–I’m told–the one thing that successful writers have in common. At first, it was scary, but wonderful things have started happening to me.

First and foremost, this project has renewed my interest in classical music and made me see just how rich and limitless it is. For the most part, I have just written about the mood of the piece, but one could spend years comparing different performances, performers, and even the types of instruments (authentic versus modern) on which the music is played. This is to say nothing of the intellectual challenge of actually studying each piece from a musical perspective. So far, I’ve just touched on a handful of pieces by a small number of composers. Consider the all pieces that a composer might have written during his or her lifetime! (Vivaldi: 40 operas and 70 concertos, for example.) So much music, so little time!

Next, writing about the pieces has turned into as much autobiography as journalism. Writing about a piece makes me remember when and where I was on first hearing it and makes many of those memories come alive again for me. The French novelist, Marcel Proust, bit into a small French cake, called a madeleine, which reminded him of an event from his childhood. He spent the rest of his life reliving it in his multi-volume epic, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Obviously, I don’t compare myself to him, but this has been a liberating exercise for me.

In addition, along with the memories of music come memories of so many people–friends & family; famous & obscure; helpful & and hurtful; friendly and unfriendly; good & bad; loving and nurturing. After I graduated from college, I left my hometown of Mishawaka, Indiana and set out to see the world, for the most part turning my back on all of them. Now, nearly 40  years later, I find myself regretting that, but also discover anew, just how forgiving people can be. My sister, who lives 2000 miles away, visited the site and shared some of her own remembrances and gave me encouragement.

Finally, there is the satisfaction of re-discovering each piece itself. I started out by sitting down with a tablet of paper and just brainstorming names of composers. Then I listed their works that readily sprang to mind. After a few minutes I had about 75 pieces. Over the next few days, pieces just began popping into my head. Now the list has grown to 200 works. When I sit down to write the first draft of each entry, I just look at the name of the piece, and I hear some part of it in my mind. That starts the associations and the piece almost writes itself. On weekends, I try to listen to the pieces again, and I often realize I’ve forgotten some other part of the work and it’s wonderful to hear it again. It’s almost like hearing it for the first time again.

Chopin wrote this sonata while staying at the summer residence at Nohant, with his lover, the female French writer, George Sand. The version I have–on London performed by Wilhelm Kempff–gives it the subtitle, “The Funeral March,” because he had written the third movement two years before the rest of the sonata for a funeral. You will know the tune if you have ever seen a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which a character pretends to be dead or thinks he is dead. It is dark and brooding, and I used to listen to it a lot back in a depressive period while a college student.

Why would one of the most successful composers of the day (first half of the 19th century) write such a glum piece? Chopin was only 29 at the time, but since he suffered from consumption (which most artists around this time seemed die from) death obviously was always looking over his shoulder. In fact, he died from the disease at 39, but he left a large number of works for piano–27 etudes, 52 mazurkas, 19 nocturnes, and 13 polonaises, 25 preludes as well as three sonatasand two concertos.

I had put off listening to this piece until today. Proabably fearing the depressive tone of the third movement. It surprised me then hearing that the first, second, and fourth movements are quite different in style–one romantic, the second fast, and the last kind of like someone being chased by the devil. Well, we all are, and thank god for those who’ve managed to capture that uniquely human awareness and channel it into divine works of art.

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