Johann Sebastian Bach Brandenburg Concerto Number 5 in D Major

I chose today’s piece, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 5 because the first movement always gives me the impression of forward movement. It would be a perfect accompaniment to a scene from a movie where a horse-drawn coach, pulled by a chestnut gelding, trundles along a French country lane. (Or a 21 year-old on his first visit to France–see an excerpt from my memoir below). It always puts me in a light and happy mood.

The liner notes to my old vinyl recording of this concerto, conducted by Pablo Casals, states that it is the only one of the six Brandenburgs to treat the keyboard as an integral member of the featured instruments. In the others that have a keyboard, it is merely played as a continuo, that is a harmonic accompaniment. In the fifth concerto, however, the keyboard definitely the most important instrument. On the recording I have, the keyboard part was performed on piano by Rudolf Serkin, a rather famous pianist in the second third of this century.

Bach gives the second movement over to an unaccompanied trio consisting of flute, violin and keyboard. Serkin, I believe, was noted for his chamber playing, and on this recording, the trio plays the slow and pensive “affetuoso” movement with grace and feeling.

Bach gets our feet tapping again in the third movement with another fast tempo, this time a gigue. It starts out as a round with the violin stating the twelve-note theme of a fugue. Next, the flute joins in with the theme followed next by the piano. Finally the rest of orchestra picks up the fourth voice in the fugue and the piece continues on its rapid way, each instruments weaving in and out and around one another in an intricate pattern. About, three quarters of the way through, the fugue ends, and so Back restarts it again in the same order-violin, flute, piano and orchestra.

I was just thinking how intricate the last movement was, and how complex it must be for an orchestra to play. But then I remembered that he wrote two-part, three-part, four-part, and five-part inventions for keyboard. How taxing that must be for the poor piano player, you might think. But what about his great organ pieces, like the Tocatta and Fugue in D minor in which the organist also uses each leg as well on the foot keyboard! Bach managed to build such complex and revolutionary pieces out of basics forms of his day. They were new and revolutionary and yet stood on the solid ground of the tradition in which he grew up. See, you can be creative and interesting without tearing everything down.

Download MP3 or buy CDs of Johann Sebastian Bach: 6 Brandenburg Concertos / 4 Orchestral Suites – The English Concert / Trevor Pinnock

Biography

Landing in France

The 747 circled lazily over the French countryside. I must confess that my nose was pressed against the window as we descended and the swatches and daubs of colors turned into farmland and small towns. I had flown before, of course, and was therefore used to seeing shopping malls, mass-produced houses made of ticky-tacky, and industrial-sized farms from above. But seeing France from the air took my by surprise. It was as if the whole fabric of the landscape–and hence how one saw the world–were woven out of different material.

The small villages sat at the crossroads of two roads, lined by hedgerows that ran through the fields. These town had an organic appearance. Vaguely round, sometimes bisected by a creek or small river, they were a complex interweaving of trees, honey-colored stone walls, gray roofs and winding lanes. Sometimes, at the apex of one of the small conurbations, I’d see the shiny gray slate roof of a church and its spire pointing skyward. It was like looking down on an entirely different and ancient but vibrant world.

For the first time in my life, I had a feeling of stepping into the great river of history and somehow being connected to it. It was a feeling of homecoming. For some reason, American life and popular culture have seemed somewhat foreign to me. Most of the really successful people here say we must look to the future and those who can’t change and adapt are doomed. Unfortunately that usually gets interpreted as rejecting all the traditions, history and disciplines that got us here in the first place. Perhaps growing up as the grandson of immigrants made me feel more connected to the “old world.” Maybe that’s retrogressive of me, but I see the wasteful alternative played out on a daily basis as people constantly reinvent the wheel.

I soon learned France was a place that was both keenly aware of its past and could embrace the trends of the future as well. Take the airport where I landed–Charles De Gaulle. In January of 1977 when I first landed there, it was one of the most modern airports in the world, and it still seems that way to me in my mind’s eye. Your plane lands at one of the satellite terminals and you take incredibly long moving walkways to the main terminal where you collect your bags. Inside, you must take an escalator inside a glass tube that passes through a central circular atrium, like the veins of some huge organism.

The second thing that struck me about France was how it smelled. As soon as the door opened into the terminal a pungent smell met my nose. It was a mixture of the smells of coffee, chocolate, real butter, perspiration and the ubiquitous black tobacco cigarettes–Gauloise and Gitanes.

After gawking like a tourist for about an hour and passing through customs, I managed to find out that a bus would take me to a train that would drop me at the Gare du Nord. While waiting for the bus, I walked over to a little café cum news stand and bought a croissant. The semester before, my friend Thom Klem, had taught me how they make croissants. You make a pastry dough, roll it out, spread it with a layer of butter, fold it up, roll it out again, and repeat this procedure a few more times. The layers of fat and dough are what makes them so light and rich at the same time.

The croissant I bought during my first hour in France was a bit of a disappointment, but I savored the moment anyway. I climbed on the train at Charles De Gualle airport, which slid through the small track-side towns, then suburbs and finally past the high rise apartment buildings of the 18 arrondissement. Here I was, a bumpkin from Indiana, thousands of miles away from home in a place where no one at all knew me. It was now up to me to find my way through this new world all on my own. I had to find a place to stay, get myself enrolled in classes and manage my funds to last until June. What a wonderful journey I was beginning.

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.

Franz Schubert: (The Witch King)

So for today’s piece, I have chosen a little piece by Schubert, which I know you have heard. It’s been used in so many films and cartoons that the second you hear it, you will recognize it. It is called, “The Witch King”, and starts out with a driving rhythm of ominous and dark sounding sounding chords. In the bass line, a short, deep and portentuous melody gives the piece a wonderful sense of foreboding. This piece is the perfect accompaniment for a film where some chase takes place on a moor in the driving rain. Or, in my case, when some stupid adolescent drives his car into a tree.

When I was 16, I got my driver’s license. That marked the beginning of my independence from my parents. My mother had a black 1968 Volkswagen Beetle, that she let me use in the evening and on the weekends, and I have always enjoyed getting in a car and just driving to see where the road takes me. Perhaps that is the great metaphor of my life. The journey seems more important than the actual arrival at some distant goal. You find so many interesting things along the way. If you’re a closet Buddhist, being in a car is the perfect analogy for living in the here and now. It is an opportunity to be mindful and present in the moment.

When I was in Indiana last week, I took a drive past the former house of my best friend from high school, Gary Endicott. He lived in a small house on the edge of a pretty heft chunk of farm land that had belonged to his grandfather. The house sat a about a half mile in from the Mishawaka hills. These rose up at the south end of town quite abruptly and from then on the geography was flat farmland all the way down to about Kokomo.

I used to go to Gary’s often to either study with him on week nights or to pick him up on weekends for our drinking binges. The way to his house was a familiar one for me as Gary lived not far from my maternal grandmother and my Uncle Walt who took care of her. I would have to drive over the St. Joseph River, through the town center of Mishawaka, which had been a quaint little manufacturing town in the early part of the century, and then up Main Street to the south side of town, through Belgian town. There I would turn right on Dragoon Trail and soon take a road that forked off to the left up into the hills. Where the two roads diverged, my successful first cousin John Pairitz lived at the top of the hill in a wonderful modern house he had designed. The road took a grand, sweeping curve up to the left and where it leveled off, there stood Gary’s house. Across the street was a ramshackle barn that housed a small saw mill which still served the farmers who lived in the area.

One day, perhaps while riding with Gary, I found there was another route up to his house. Instead of turning on to Dragoon, if I drove about a quarter of a mile and then turned right, another winding road snaked up the hill past wonderfully upscale houses that lie tucked away in the hardwood forest that covered the hill. This road came emerged from the trees and then went by a few more posh houses before coming out a few yards South of Gary’s. During my senior year in high school, I used to take this road more often because a girl whom I had a crush on, Harriet Schroeder, lived on it.

I also liked this road because it was fun to drive. The winding curves presented a challenge and made me feel a bit like a race car driver in my little four speed bug. And that almost led to my undoing.

One rainy summer weekend evening, my friend Paul Mankowski called me up to go out drinking. He had a friend named Dave Baker whose parents had a big, hulking Chevrolet station wagon. “Road Party!” Paul said and I was in. We loved to get a case of beer, climb into a big boat of a car, and then drive around in the countryside until about two in the morning. (Sometimes we didn’t always drink. I remember once going out to the country to watch a meteor shower and another time lying on the roof of my Volkswagen watching the aurora borealis, one year when it came so far south you could see it in Northern Indiana.)

On the night in question, we picked up Endicott. Time has made me forget what we did that night, but I distinctly remember dropping Gary off at his house. When we started off toward home, I told them we should take the alternate route. “It has a great hill!” “Yeah,” said Paul, who knew the road as well. Unfortunately Dave didn’t. At the top of the hill, we yelled “Gun it,” and Dave took off. At the first curve, Dave lost control on the wet road and the car went sailing into the wood and hit a tree head on. I was sitting in the back seat and was hurtled forward, hit the seat with my left hip and flew over and landed in Paul’s lap. The pain at first was sharp and blinding. We all checked each other. Dave’s head had hit the windshield and he had a gash in his forehead and his nose was swollen. Paul had managed to block his impact somehow and was unscathed. He left us and ran back to the Endicott’s to get help.

An ambulance soon arrived and packed Dave and me off to the hospital. My parents met us there and were greatly relieved when the X-rays showed no broken bones. When quizzed about how it happened, we only told them that Dave didn’t know the road and had lost control on the wet pavement. We omitted the fact that we had told Dave to gun the car and had done it for the thrill of it.

Did I learn my lesson? No. After my aches and pains went away by the middle of the next week, I was back in my Volkswagen, driving like a mad man. One night, I went to Dave’s house to see the car, which Paul told me had been towed back to his parents’ house. I hopped in my car and drove so fast I almost lost control driving around a familiar curve in the road not far from my house. When I got to Dave’s I was amazed to see the car. The front of the car was in the shape of a huge “Vee” where the tree had pushed the bumper almost up to the windshield. The engine had traveled downward and bent the frame, which now almost touched the ground under the driver’s seat. Inside the back of the driver’s seat, which was one continuous piece, was bent forward into a vee shape from the impact of my body hitting it.

What amazes me now is my attitude toward the whole episode. I thought it was “cool.” I drew no lesson from it. It did not scare me. In fact, I was glad it had happened: it gave me wonderful bragging rights at school. I regaled many a captive audience at school with my account of it. And What’s more it gave me an injury, that I could make the most of. I though it would be cool to have a bad back for the rest of my life, which I could tell people came from an accident in my youth.

Cars and youth. When my daughters neared their teens years later, I started to cringe. What would happen if they turned out as wild as I was! In the prosperous Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC where I lived, alcohol was the drug of choice among high school students–it was available, and most kid thought “my parents do it too, so who are they to say?”

I’m happy to say, my daughters are 27and 25now and made it through those years quite well. Maybe because they turned out not to be big classical music fans.

Schubert Bio

Download MP3 of “Erlkönig” (The Erl-King)

Johannes Brahms: Symphony Number Three in F Major

I listened to Brahms’ Symphony Number 3 the other day. I couldn’t remember the last time I had listened to it, which astounded me, because it has one of the most beautiful and stirring movements of any piece of music I know. I am referring to the third movement, marked “poco allegro.” The entire symphony is masterfully orchestrated, but in the third movement Brahms really managed to use every instrument to evoke such strong emotions. It is a quite, meditative movement, which some might consider a bit sad. But it has a flowing, lyrical quality to it that really is sublime.

I first heard it back in 1975, and can just picture myself sitting in my dorm room listening to this and feeling sorry for myself. And now as I listen to it again, I feel those same emotions welling back up. Is that bad? So many people hurt and don’t acknowledge it and shove their pain down to get on with their lives. Sooner or later, however, it will bubble up and then they will explode, have a stress related illness, hurt someone, or their beloved will leave because they’ve become so shut down.

So don’t be afraid of sad music. It can be as therapeutic for you as it was for the composer who wrote it.

For me, I have strong association with Brahm’s symphonies and death. Why? Because during the spring of 1975, when I was living in the French House and had become taken with all of Brahm’s symphonies, my father’s best friend died. We called him Uncle Steve, though he wasn’t our uncle at all. But he and my father had grown up together during the Great Depression and they had worked together for nearly 30 years in the same factory in South Bend, Indiana.

In my youth, no one ever taught me how to deal with the death. Oh, I had been to my share of funerals, which, in my family’s tradition, consisted of open-casket viewings, a trip in the cortege to the cemetery, and afterwards, a large meal. When we viewed the body, however, most adults stood around stoically and discussion was limited usually whether or not the person looked natural or how death had come.

When paternal grandmother died, my father went up and gave her a final kiss before they closed the lid. I think my older brother, Ken, later remarked on how odd that was. Later during the church service, my father broke down and wept.

For us kids, the scores of cousins on either side of my father’s Hungarian and mother’s Belgian extended families, a funeral was a chance to get together and play, tell jokes and otherwise run rampant. I remember after my paternal grandfather’s funeral playing hide and seek in the church above the basement where the meal was being held. The reverend came up and told us to stop. Maybe this just goes to show how one’s developmental age only makes one able to process certain concepts and emotions. Unless the child was close to the adult who died, which wasn’t the case with my father’s parents, then the grieving process might not even be relevant.

For example, how many children are able to understand the concept of finality and irrevocable loss? Still, I remember having a recurring, disturbing dream for many years in which I felt a sense of dread as I saw myself approaching my grandfather’s bier. These dreams certainly were exacerbated by one funeral I attended as a young boy, which did shock me.

My father had a step cousin who had a son. I had never met the son, so I did not think anything of it one day when my father announced that he and I were going to the son’s funeral. When we got to the funeral home, however, I was shocked to see that the body in the casket was no larger than my own. He was my age-about eight. I distinctly remember being freaked out as my father took me up to kneel beside the casket and say a prayer. The undertaker had arranged the hands in a praying position and entwined a rosary through the fingers. Seeing the boy there scared me more than anything has ever done either before or after. And I notice I have butterflies in my stomach as I write about the event right now, as an adult of 59 years.

For years thereafter death scared me. It still does a bit, but less so now after reading about the death and dying process. I had to do that after my own daughter–when she reached the age of 6 or 7-started asking me about the ways people can die. What I learned in my readings is that there are age-appropriate approaches one can take to help a child deal with death, and I wished someone had used some of them on me when I was a child.

I guess I can’t really blame my parents for this–although for a long time I did. My father had two sisters, one of whom died shortly after being born and the other when she was about 14. This was in the 1920s when infant mortality in immigrant communities was pretty high and before they had developed vaccines for all the major childhood illnesses. Since death was such a matter-of-fact part of everyday life back then, people were probably just expected to get on with their life. In the West, we have it pretty cushy and our long life spans mean that you can hide old people away and have them die without disturbing things. Our cults of health and individualism have also made us think somehow that we’re immortal or that “death is optional.”

As a child, I loved to go to Uncle Steve’s house. It lay about 15 miles way out near South Bend’s airport in the middle of a fertile agricultural plain that had been formed by draining the Kankakee marsh. His house sat on the edge of a huge farm that grew corn and near another where a family had a huge peppermint oil farm. On summer visits to Uncle Steve’s, you could smell the peppermint wafting across the field.

What I liked best, however, was Uncle Steve’s house. I remember the house having a cathedral ceiling and along one wall, it was all glass and Steve had filled every surface with plants, so that it looked like a green house. But what I liked best was that it was chock-a-block with all kinds of knick-knacks and curios. It reminded me a bit of the Adam’s Family’s house–there was a footstool made from an elephant’s foot and a manic cuckoo clock, which all kids love. Steve was a kind man who always joked with us and his wife, Ann, always had wonderful Hungarian pastries on hand for us.

In 1975, on a call back home, my mother informed me that Uncle Steve was dying. He had colon cancer and he was slipping fast. She said my father had spent many evening bedside and during a later call she said Dad was pretty devastated when Uncle Steve eventually died. Dad did share how grizzly the end was with me.

Why am I telling you this? Uncle Steve died nearly 40 years ago. He wasn’t famous, or important, or particularly altruistic. Why should you care? Yet, this is what life is all about. It’s about the small sphere of influence we operate in and the people who matter to us. That’s what’s really important–how we love and treat and take care of these people. Why, then, do we care more about the death of an inbred princess who smashes her Mercedes into a bridge abutment with her lover than we care for a young girl raped and killed and thrown into a mass grave in Kosovo? Why is princess Diana’s death considered tragic, when millions still die because of ethnic conflicts, starvation, neglect and diseases for which there have been cures for nearly a century? There is more tragedy in child labor and infanticide, which are rife, than in any bored Hollywood star’s sex life.

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Ludwig Van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.4 in G Major, Op.58

The summer of 1975 saw me returning to my home town of Mishawaka, Indiana to find work to pay for the upcoming year of college. The factory where I had worked the year before announced they would not hire any college students that summer. So I spent a few weeks looking through want ads and driving around the industrial parks of Elkhart, Indiana.

Elkhart had about a million factories, which had sprung up during the 1960s around the mobile home industry. Back in the late 50s, some guy had the bright idea of building motor and mobile homes outside that town. This was perfect timing–the Eisenhower administration had started funding and building the interstate road system. In the post war boom period, people had a renewed “westward-ho!” spirit and the recreational vehicle (RV) business boomed. Brands like Holiday Rambler, Airstream, and Skyline sprang up and put thousands to work in northern Indiana. The timing and location was right for several other reasons as well. The biggest industrial plant–Studebaker’s auto–went bust in 1963 and put a large chunk of the population out of work. Many of these workers migrated twenty miles eastward to Elkhart.

Choosing Elkhart was a stroke of genius for one final reason–it lay on the northern edge of Amish territory. The Amish had a strong work ethic and would toil away for long hours without organizing into trade unions. They were faithful employees and the minimum wage they earned gave a needed shot of capital into their otherwise barter economy. It allowed them to trade with the outside world. Since they weren’t heavy consumers, they didn’t drive up the prices for the rest of us heathens, so life was pretty cheap.

By the summer of 1975, however, after the OPEC oil embargo, the RV industry hit a slump. The price of gasoline soared–doubling, then tripling–and people started buying smaller cars and cross country travel became more expensive. So there was no work to be had with the big mobile home manufacturers. That is why I felt lucky when one of the place where I had filled out a job application–a lamp assembly plant–called me back and offered me a job.

This position turned out to be a sine cure, that is a cushy job. The plant assembled cheap table and swag lamps from molded glass and brass-plated tin parts that came from Mexico. The plant had three main areas–a loading dock, an assembly line and a storage area. They offered me a job as a jack of all trades, and my duties were to sweep, keep the assembly line stocked with parts, and help load and unload trucks as needed.

I spent most of my time with “the girls.” The girls worked the assembly line. Most of them were high school drop-outs, poor and from the wrong side of the tracks. Some were cute; some were single; some were my age and were married and had a brood of kids; some were older, married and had quiet, sullen husbands. All of them were very nice to me. Their boss was a small dark lady, with long black hair, a squat, wide torso, and a deeply lined rugged face. Doris. She was a kind boss who never yelled. In the morning, she would get the day’s quota from the president and send me to round up the parts and stock the bins for each person on the line with swags, shades, chains, harps, bases and cords. Someone would tune the radio to the local “Light Rock” channel and production would begin.

For the women, the assembly line served as a kind of sewing circle for them. They kept up a running conversation for almost the whole day. They discussed their kids, their husbands or boyfriends, their sex life, recipes, their joys and sorrows. The only time they ever stopped was when a popular song came on that they all liked.  Doris once floored me by singing along to James Taylor’s cover of “How Sweet it Is to Be Loved By You.”

The women didn’t censor their conversation because I was around, and they sometimes talked louder when they wanted to see how I would react. Every so often someone would make a risque remark and everyone would look up to see my reaction. Let’s face it: I was an airhead back then. The job held little that you could call intellectually taxing, and so I spent most of my time lost in day dreams about the wonderful semester I had passed in the French House.

One of my jobs was to assemble cardboard packing boxes. I would fold these into shape and then take them over to an upright stapling machine to reinforce them. One day while stapling, I went into a little reverie and stood motionless for several minutes before the machine. The voice of the foreman brought me around followed by the laughter of the women. “Kurt! What the hell are you doing?” the foreman yelled. “Looks like he’s gone into one of his trances again!” one of the women shouted. But no one punished me for that.

The foreman was generally pretty nice to me. Technically he was in charge of the loading dock but he really knew how everything worked–he understood the flow of goods in and out of the place and how to keep it running smoothly. He would schmooze with the truckers and then come over to the assembly line and joke with the girls to keep them happy. He was maybe 5 or 10 years older than me and was about my size but was a little more muscular. When we weren’t too busy he’d have me sweep or sometimes ask me to help him and his Mexican assistant load or unload a truck.

The loading dock was where the “Men’s Sewing Circle” met. Sometimes the president would come over and swap dirty stories with the foreman and the truckers. My friend Eric Tollar told me that he had read a study about the language of truck drivers. He cited a statistic that said that over 40 percent of a trucker’s speech is made up of swear words. I did a considerable amount of field work that summer and I’m happy to report that my statistics corroborate that earlier study.

Now my father swore a lot. But he rarely used any sexual imprecations. Of course, he swore a lot in Hungarian, which I didn’t speak and which I am told contains the filthiest swear words of any language on the face of the earth. So maybe he was as foul-mouthed as the truckers, but I never knew it, and the truckers’ language would sometimes make me blush. And since I was still a virgin–at 20–their description of their sexual exploits made me feel woefully inadequate.

That is another reason I spend most of my time on the girls’ side. The most sexually charged conversation there happened one day when one of the girls–let’s call her Jenny–described “doing it” in cars and how she had once “done it” in a Volkswagen Beetle. Being around my age, Jenny was the prettiest of the girls and the most extroverted. Given the right background, she might have gone to college. Instead, she had probably been labeled as “wild” or from the “wrong side of the tracks” and ended up here, doing unskilled labor in this factory. I think she might have been an unwed mother. The other girls liked her, perhaps finding in her stories of her exploits and boyfriends the fantasy life they longed for.

One day, at quitting time, I happened to find myself driving out the parking lot behind Jenny. She was driving a Volkswagen Beetle. It just so happened that she took the same route as me. She turned off before reaching the main road, and I saw her pull into the yard of a ramshackle, tar paper-covered shack. I knew the type of place. My neighborhood had a number of places like this. Poverty breeds ignorance and the children who came from these kind of homes–often with step parents and step-brothers and sisters–usually did poorly academically and rarely had a bright future ahead of them.

Poor people, however, sometimes have bigger hearts than the rich. The women on the assembly line often cut me slack. If they sometimes ran out of parts because I hadn’t kept up stocking the parts, they’d tell me, but never in an angry way. And when the summer came to an end and I announced that I was returning to college, they took up a collection, which they enclosed in a huge, sappy farewell card on which they all signed their names. It was one of the nicest gifts I have ever received.

After that reminiscense, I don’t know what to say about Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Number 4. I find a lot to like in all of Beethoven’s piano concertos. The first sounds like it could almost have been written my Mozart. The last had Beethoven’s unmistakable profundity of emotion. The fourth starts out with a nice quite reverie-producing set of chords played by the piano before the orchestra takes them and swells up into a passage that sounds straight out of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The piano solo that fill the middle section starts out with a lovely lilting melody before Beethoven starts showing off his extreme fluidity by weaving the instrument up and down and in and out and around the other instruments. He pits this against a semi-serious melody that the orchestra brings back several times. Each time he acknowledges the serious concerns that melody, but he then always mulls it around and resolves it on an uplifting note. The second movement by contrast is much more serious and reflective. It starts with a very serious statement by the strings before the piano comes in with all quiet, meditative and spiritual. This is someone with a deeply religious sense. The movement ends with a kind of musical question–“is life worth all the pain and struggle?” The last movement answers that question, however, with a resounding “yes!”

No matter how miserable you circumstances and what crap life deals you, it is also full of possibilities. Some people born in squalor or from broken homes or subject to horrible setbacks have emerged triumphant.   However, I wonder how those women in that lamp factory turned out.

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Claudio Monteverdi: Vespro Della Beata Virgine (1610)

During the spring semester of 1974, I read voraciously. In English class we studied “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Windhover,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman. Inspired by my history of western civilization class, I read Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” My friend Paul Mankowski wrote and told me that he had loved Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” so I read that, too. He also mentioned a writer whose name was new to me, James Joyce. One day I picked up a copy of “The Dubliners” and was smitten, especially by the story called “A Painful Case.” But when I read “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” my life changed.

That book made me want to become a writer. It captured so well the internal struggles of an intellectual trying to balance his love of knowledge with his faith. I remember one part where Joyce describes a boy listening to a priest’s sermon about eternity. The priest said that God would punish those who sin with eternal damnation. He then told a story to help people imagine how long eternity was. The priest told them to imagine a mountain of sand on a beach. A bird flies down, picks up one grain of sand, and takes it away. Imagine how it would take the bird to remove that mountain of sand. Then imagine if the bird had to move as many mountains of sand as there were grains of sand in that mountain. The story gave the boy nightmares, the point of which is what kind of religion is it that gets you to be good  by using threats of punishment? Especially for little children who are supposed to be innocent.

My relationship with my parents at this time became somewhat strained. I often argued with my father. He was a bit like the argument clinic in that Monty Python sketch. No matter what point of view you took, he seemed to contradict it. And yet, if you contradicted him, you certainly didn’t win any brownie points. I have already said that he was worried that my reading Dostoyevsky would turn me into a communist. If I threw out an idea that contradicted his, moreover, he would blame it on “those atheistic college psychology professors.” I think my mother sympathized with me, although she once told me “You think too much, and about the wrong things.” Maybe she was just worried that I was spending too much time by myself, listening to music and reading.

Sometimes I escaped to the house of my brother Bob and his wife, Cindi, who lived over the state line in Niles, Michigan (birthplace of Ring Lardner.) Cindi was working on finishing her bachelor’s degree, and sometimes read me poems that she had written. From time to time they would go on a date and I would baby sit for my brother Bob’s daughter, Karen, who was about three or four. She was a cute baby and had taught herself to read about that time. To show how out of touch I was with reality, I once asked her if she would like to me to read her a story. When she said yes, I pulled out my copy of “A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man,” and started reading it to her. After a few paragraphs, she slipped off my lap and went off to bed. She eventually did grow up to be smart as a whip, graduating cum laude from Indiana University, and is a gifted writer.

One day at the over-priced record store at the local mega-mall, I found today’s piece. I’m not sure why I bought it, except that it was a double album on a very expensive export label and someone had accidentally priced it as a single record. It has turned out to be one of my all time favorite works of music.

Written in 1610, it stands as one of the pivotal bridges between sacred and secular choral music, out of which modern opera arose. It contains five sung psalms, interspersed with eight other pieces that are hymns of praise to the Virgin Mary. I’m not sure of the origins of some of these texts, but some are quite sensual:

“As long as the king is at his table, my spikenard gives forth sweet perfume.”

and

“Thou art fair, my love, beautiful and comely, O daughter of Jerusalem.”

And even

“My beloved is radiant white and ruddy: the hair of his head is like the crimson of the king, bound in little plaits.”

But what even today sends chills down my spine is the singing. Some of the melodies are based on traditional Gregorian chants. Monteverdi alternates passages given to the choir, with solos, duos and trios sung by sopranos or tenors. These voices sing in a pure, unaffected pre-operatic style, which is so simple yet beautiful. I also loved a technique that he employs several times throughout the work. He often starts out a section with a little musical interlude played on the high-pitched and difficult to play medieval cornetto, the valve-less precursor to the trumpet. When the soloists being singing, eventually one or more of the voices will echo the melodies that were played by the cornetto earlier.

Another effective technique is how he uses the soloists. Sometimes one leads and sings the melody. When the one finishes, the other will sing the last phrase again, which give a hauntingly beautiful echo effect. I saw the Vespers sung several year ago in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. During some of these duos, they actually moved the second soloist to a different part of the church. In one of the most beautiful, “Audi caelum” the lead voice sings a prayer to God in heaven, asking “who is she who rises bright as the dawn?” The echo voice is supposed to represent God answering back to the supplicant. As the singer continues the prayer, he eventually ends each phrase on a higher and higher note, until at the end, he resolves back to the beginning key.

The recording that I bought was by The Concentus Musicus under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Monteverdi Choir of Hamburg. It was issued on the Telefunken label in 1972, and I think it was one of the first recordings of its time to use all original period instruments. The liner booklet was quite a piece in itself, some 24 pages in length describing the characteristics of the instruments, the research to find the first edition of the score, and the structure of the work itself. Of a number of recordings I’ve heard over the years, this is clearly my favorite. Without hesitating I would choose it as one of my desert island disks.

Biography

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Harnoncourt only available on CD of Vespro Della Beata Vergine from Amazon

Gregorian Chants: Missa in Festo Pentacostes

The spring of 1974 saw me trying to reconcile the faith-based belief system I had grown up with as a Roman Catholic with the rational one I was developing based on my studies of philosophy. The fall of the previous year, I had read Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, which contained the following question that set me on this path: “Is it not of the utmost necessity to construct a pure moral philosophy which is completely freed from everything which may be only empirical and thus belong to anthropology?” In other words as the book’s translator said: “Only pure reason can decide what is an absolutely universal law, permitting no exceptions.” My goal therefore became to find an intellectual path–by reading philosophy–to the spiritual.

While these thoughts gained ground in one part of my brain, the older part, steeped in the rituals and tradition of the church, was frantically trying to do damage control. Living with my parents, I went to church every Sunday, and actually started listening to the priest’s homilies. It just so happened that we had a newly-ordained priest assigned to our church that year. For some reason, he seemed to be having the same doubts as I. His sermons contained elegantly constructed philosophical arguments in which you could see him wrestling with his need to use his intellect and the strictures placed on various lines of inquiry by the church.

On weekends, I used to drive around South Bend, Indiana and my hometown of Mishawaka, exploring bookstores, record shops and Catholic churches. Around the turn of the 20th century South Bend had flourished as an industrial center. Many immigrants from Western and Eastern Europe flocked to the area to work at factories like Studebaker’s, Bendix, Uniroyal, and Oliver Farm Equipment. My grandparents, for example, came from Belgium and Hungary in 1904. There were also Serbs, Greeks, Poles, Irish, and Germans who lived in enclaves, each with its own shops.

Every community had built its own church, each one trying to outdo the other. After I learned to drive, I would go poking around these churches pretending that they were European cathedrals. Some were quite impressive-with beautiful stained-glass windows, soaring gothic vaults, and elaborately-carved imitations of Michaelangelo’s Pieta. In the belief that somehow ritual was important, I used to seek out the churches that still celebrated high Mass with incense, traditional music, and the priest singing the liturgy. After Vatican II, mass became increasingly prosaic, and the folk-based melodies almost excruciating. So if I found a church where, for example, mass was said in Hungarian or Polish I would go along even if I didn’t understand a word, in an attempt to rediscover the mystery of the Mass said in Latin.

After feeding my spirit, I’d often go out for some corporeal nourishment. A mall built south of town had pretty much sucked all major businesses dry in downtown South Bend, which became something of a ghost-town. However, you could still find little tiny ethnic grocery stores tucked away in the micro-cultures around the churches. Being something of an amateur gourmet, I would seek out ethnic specialties–pierogies in the Polish bakery, blood sausage at the Hungarian butcher, and baklava at the Greek pastry shop.

Finding classical music also became something of an art in itself. The mall had a record store with a large selection, but they charged about twice as much as other places. I had to spend large amounts of time poking around in the little record and stereo boutiques in the strip malls that seemed to spring up everywhere. It was hard to make out the buying strategy these places employed. In some there would be a bin or two of classical stuff at a good price, but you’d never know what you were going to find. I used to frequent one stereo place that had a cute shop assistant and one day, while browsing through their classical bin, I discovered today’s piece, Missa in Festo Pentacostes (Whit-Sunday Mass).

Nowadays Anonymous 4, and those Spanish monks who recorded Chant have made Gregorian chants quite the rage, but in 1973 you just didn’t see this stuff in record stores. How it ended up in a shop in a strip mall next to a Taco Bell and a Goodyear Tire store, I will never know. My recording was on the Archiv label, which I believe was a subsidiary of Deutsche Grammophon. The label was attempting, in a very methodical fashion, to create a recorded history of Western music, from its earliest roots in the plainsong of the Seventh Century up to Bach and Handel. This album, was from “Research Period I, Series B: The Mass.”

The Archiv recording of Missa in Festo Pentacostes was performed by the Benedictine Nuns-Choir at the Abbey of Our Lady, in Varensell. Unfortunately, this recording has not been transferred to CD, and I couldn’t even find reference to the Archiv label, so it might be out of business. The only other recording of the Missa in Festo Pentacostes is by a men’s Benedictine choir, to which I provide the link below.

The Archiv recording started out with a single, old bell ringing, calling the faithful to mass. After a ring or two, it is joined by two or three others in different rhythms that create a kind of beautiful harmony. The interesting thing about that is that Gregorian chant plainsong has no harmony. Everybody sings exactly the same notes in unison. To add variety, sometimes a single voice will start out, and then the choir will join in. Of course, there is the priest, the sole male voice who sometimes sings the first part of the prayer, but he does not sing along with the full choir. I think vocal harmony was invented in the 13th century, so it took a long time of listening to those bells before someone figured out you could do the same with the human voice.

You would think that hearing these pure female voices float along slow and languorous would eventually bore you to tears, but you would be dead wrong. For me, it is the fact that this music is so simple and the voices so “untrained” (in the sense of operatic singing) that makes this work so appealing. Since this time, there has been a rediscovery of Gregorian chants and other early music, with works by Hildegard von Bingen soaring to the top of the classical charts. Many of these sound over-produced, and since when did monks become superstars? Even the film director, David Lynch, (EraserheadBlue Velvet and Twin Peaks) recently got into the act by producing a horribly overly-worked, new-age album of Hildegard von Bingen’s works. It’s sad, because when that happened the focus shifted to context from content, which is why I began listening to this kind of music in the first place.

Another sad thing for me was to see what happened to the little small town priest, whose sermons I found so thought-provoking during my time of questioning. Once, I persuaded my skeptical friend, Eric Tollar, to accompany me to mass to hear one of the priests sermons. During the week, the priest must have received a “talking to” by some church official saying that his sermons were becoming too heretical, because when we heard his homily, he had done a complete about face. His sermon was all about the infallibility of church doctrine and how questioning the rules and tenets of the church could only lead one to ruin. I was astounded at this change, and a bit embarrassed for having brought my friend. What a shame, I though, to see how one could be cowed into shutting off one’s uniquely human need to inquire into the whys and wherefores of our existence. Seeing this happen only exacerbated the uncertainty I had begun to feel about my status as a Catholic. And though my belief system and spirituality now lie in other schools of teaching, I still value my heritage, especially in the intensely spiritual works of music such as the Missa in Festo Pentacostes.

Purchase a Similar CD of Gregorian Chants

Wikipedia Entry on Gregorian Chants

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