August 5, Birthday of Betsy Jolas (b. 1928)

Born in Paris between WWI and WWII, Betsy Jolas grew up in an enviable milieu. Her mother was a well-known translator and her father founded the literary magazine, “transition,” which published James Joyce’ Finnegan’s Wake as a “Work in Progress.” Her studies at the Paris Conservatory were interrupted by WWII and she and her family decamped to the US, where she completed her studies at Bennington. After the War, in 1946, her family returned to Paris, where Jolas continued her studies at the conservatoire with Darius Milhaud, Simone Plé-Caussade and Olivier Messiaen. She replaced Olivier Messiaen at the conservatory and has been on the faculty there since 1975. She has won many prizes and is both a Chevalier in the French Légion d’Honneurand and is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Points d’aube


String Quartet No. 3



D’un opéra de voyage (1967)


Quatuor II for soprano, violin, viola & cello


Enfantillages


POINTS D`OR concerto for saxophone(s) & 15 instruments

April 25, Birthday of Szőnyi Erzsébet (b. 1924)

There is scant information on Wikipedia about Hungarian composer, Szőnyi Erzsébet except to say she has composed a lot including 8 operas. More information can be found on the website for the International (Zoltán Kodály) Society. Many of her works appear on Youtube, however, and maybe her music represents the evolution of classical music that Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók. This ranges from transcriptions of folk melodies into quite complex chamber music. Enjoy.

Hárfás kvintett
Zeneiskola koncertje
Trio Concertino
koncert II. rész

Music For Easter

Happy Easter. Even if you aren’t a believer, there is something wonderful and redemptive and renewing about the spring.


Bach: Easter, Mass in B minor



Bach’s Easter Oratorio: Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4



Mahler – Symphony No 2, Resurrection



Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus–Beethoven
Oratorio: Christ on the Mount of Olives–Hallelujah


Brahms, Dvorak, Mahler, the Byrds and Buddhas

There is a Theosophist saying (sometimes attributed to Buddha) that goes, “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” The origin of the word Buddha means “to wake up” and people think of the Buddha as a great teacher. And what is a great teacher but someone who wakes you up? Why this is important to me is because, whenever I most needed it, a person has appeared in my life to either teach me or point me in the right direction. There have been three outstanding Buddha’s in my life.

In my junior year of high school, I became good friends with a classmate whose family was completely different from my own. They all listened to classical music, read The New Yorker, discussed classic works of literature, and studied languages. That’s where I first heard this Brahms trio:

They opened up a whole other world for me. I felt so uncultured in their presence that I devoted myself to turning myself into an “intellectual.” I read voraciously, bought tons of classical music, and studied the works of great artists.

This became a problem, though, when it came time to go to college. My three older brothers had gone to a state university that had good math and science programs and it was expected that I go there. What’s more my father was convinced that computer science was the wave of the future, so that’s what I declared as my major. I was profoundly unhappy. It seemed so dull compared to the world of art and literature I had come to love. That is when the first Buddha showed up.

One day after my biology class, the teacher singled me out from a lecture hall of over two hundred students and asked me to come to talk with him. He listened to me as I explained my dreams, ideas, and dissatisfaction. Then he told me that I had to look really hard into myself to find my true desires and then follow them. I was listening to a lot of Dvorak at the time.

At the end of the semester, I transferred to a liberal arts university and went on to major in French and then got a masters degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages.

That degree took me to Algeria in 1980, where I taught English at a technical institute. There I met another Buddha. The school provided me with an apartment, which I shared with a fellow ex-patriot from Michigan. He had lived there for several years and had figured out all the tricks to survive in a bureaucratic socialist country. He loved this Byrd’s album, which is a classic as it’s probably from the first country rock album.

From him, I learned how to be self sufficient, but he gave me another gift as well. One day, he told me that the Fulbright foundation was offering scholarships to do teacher training in English as a Second language in Italy. He knew of my love of Italian movies and told me to apply.

I applied–and won! For the next two years, I lived first in Naples and then in Rome and traveled extensively throughout the south of Italy. In Naples I met a woman, who was teaching English at the British council, whom I convinced to marry me. When my two years were over, we returned to the States and after getting another masters degree in educational technology, I ended up Washington, DC developing training programs in the late 1980s for a large development organization to teach people how to use an amazing new technology–email! I wonder if it was coincidence that I started listening to minimalist music like this piece by John Adams:

The organization had just started a fitness center.  After 10 years, I read an announcement in an email that came round about a new session of Tai Chi for beginners that would soon be starting. Something told me to go. There I met a remarkable man, master Quyen Tran, who had been teaching the class for some 10 years. Mr. Tran comes from Vietnam, and though one of the most important financial analysts at the our organization, he was a very humble and unassuming man. His teaching technique was as old as the hills–you follow a master, learn by doing, observing, and practicing. It is a type of teaching which has almost died out in the West, except in some of the trades. Once upon a time, this is how all knowledge was passed down. Not only is it a transfer of knowledge, it is the building of a relationship.

Around this time I discovered Mahler’s 3rd Symphony and this wonderful 4th movement, which both grounds me and elevates me at the same time:

It turns out that Tai Chi has been the one activity that has really brought the two parts of my being-mind and body–together. You must use your mind and body together, and you can’t focus on anything else. The more I practice it, the more I find an increased ability to concentrate, to let go of stress, to figure the right way to treat people and the right answers to the problems and challenges that life and work throw up.

I’ve been doing it now for 16 years and people who know me will tell you I sometimes backslide and get insanely stressed out. But where would I be if I hadn’t found these Buddhas who’ve pointed me the way along this wonderful journey called life?

Béla Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances

In the summer of 1979, I rented half a small house south of Indiana University’s school of education where most of my classes took place for my master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of English as a Second Language. It was a great university in so many ways–it offered almost every language, a world class department schools of psychology (think BF Skinner), comparative literature, medicine, film studies, and of course, music.



The school of education sat next to the school of music where you could the strains of students practicing their chops floated out of nearly every every window of the great, tall round music building that housed nothing but practice rooms.

Every night you could hear either a symphony performance, a senior, masters or doctoral recital and there were plenty of record stores (vinyl) where you could buy anything you wanted. Every dorm on campus had a library with an amazing collection of records as well, so any piece I heard on the radio or in concert could be found somewhere.

I can’t remember who introduced me to Béla Bartók, Romanian Dances, but I am so grateful for whoever did.  It touched a nerve, or perhaps I was genetically wired to love Hungarian music.

My dad’s parents had emigrated from Hungary in 1904. Every Sunday after church and dinner, my dad would turn on the local radio station, WSBT, which devoted an hour each to “The Polish Hour,” and “The Hungarian Hour.” The Poles played polkas and the Magyars played soaring, soulful “gypsy” melodies. The theme for the Hungarian Hour was a schmaltzy violin backed by an orchestra and cymbalon (a cousin of the hammered dulcimer).  You’ve heard this melody if you ever had a friend to whom you told a sad story and they said, “Pity Party,” and hummed a few notes of the melody while running their index finger over the thumb like a tiny violin.  I’d heard the song in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, I think, (thank you Carl Stalling), so I called up the radio announcer to ask what the name was.  He sounded surprised that anyone was calling to ask and in fact he didn’t know it, which I thought odd because, it was the theme song after all.  He took a moment to look it up and said it was called “You’re the Only Girl in the World For Me.” “What?” I thought. That’s so hackneyed.  Eventually I heard the melody pop up on the local classical radio station from Notre Dame University, and called that radio announcer.  He said it was Pablo de Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen,” (Gypsy Airs), a piece which borrowed a few folk melodies from Franz Liszt‘s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13.

My father, when talking about famous Hungarians, would alway mention the Gabor sisters, Ernie Kovacs, and of course  Béla Bartók, so when I started really listening to classical music I was proud of my Magyar heritage and claimed him as my favorite composer.

The Romanian Folk Dances became and still are one of my favorite pieces of music by the composer.  What’s even more wonderful is that you can find many different versions of it for solo piano, violin, orchestra, among others, as well as the original field recordings Bartok made of folk songs from which he took the melodies for this work (and even a performance by Bartok himself at the keyboard.


Solo Piano (with Bartok playing)




Violin and Piano




Cello and Piano




Muzikas, Hungarian Folk Ensemble playing melodies of the Dances with Danube Philharmonia




Another version with piano and Muzikas Folk Ensemble

Which do you prefer?


For me, I really love the version at the top, which was released in 1979, and performed by I Musici:


I Musici

The the solo piano and violin are great, too. There’s one movement that’s really haunting with harmonics on the violin, that my friend David Hendrickson said was so piercing that whenever he listened to it he said if felt like someone was cleaning his ear with a Q-tip.

Since I posted the above, I found this original field recording that Bartok made in Romania.


It’s a amazing!

Arvo Pärt: Fratres for 12 Cellos

Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer, whose haunting music is inspired by the tintinabulation of bells.

I first heard this piece in the early 1990s, after my daughter Claire was born.  Her mom is a Brit and we met a group of British ex-pats living in Gaithersburg, Maryland when we lived there.  One invited us to a party, where we met a friend of hers, Michael Moore (not the film maker) who was a lobbyist and had gone to Georgetown Law and graduated with Bill Clinton.  Michael introduced me to “Fratres” along with a number of other works by Arvo and John Adams.  I became addicted.  One reviewer has describe the piece as a “mesmerising set of variations on a six-bar theme combining frantic activity and sublime stillness that encapsulates Pärt’s observation that ‘the instant and eternity are struggling within us.

Thinking back to those days, I was reminded of what a snob I was at the time.  Here is why and why I hope I’m not any longer.

The Wizard of Snot

I grew up in a family of sinus-sufferers. We were constantly beset by colds, had never-ending post-nasal drip, and frequent sore throats. Though my mother said my problems were caused by a deviated septum, much later in my life, I realized all our suffering was self-inflicted.

See we were swimmers. When my mom was 40, shortly after I was born, she took swimming lessons and eventually became a lifeguard and swimming instructor. My three brothers and sole sister swam competitively at the local YMCA and then in high school. We spent Friday nights at open swim at the high school. When I was 4 I taught myself to swim, by watching and imitating others. And when I was old enough, my parents made me join the swim team and I swam competitively for the next 12 years.

Now here’s where the masochism comes in. For some reason, we were all allergic to chlorinated water. One drop up the nose would burn like acid, so we had to wear nose clips. Even wearing them, though, we still had burning sinuses that eventually lead to the aforementioned head colds. And that meant we always had copious amounts of phlegm.

The result of this was that on any day you entered our household, you could hear someone hacking, blowing their nose or spitting. Sure we had Kleenexes and even cloth handkerchiefs, but we still spat, even my mother. We’d spit while walking outside onto the ground. We’d spit while taking a shower. We’d roll down the window while driving along the road to spit. Once my sister spit into my face after having an argument with my parents.

We took it for granted as a fact of life and even laughed about it. Once, when we were on a drive one Sunday afternoon, I heard my mother clear her sinuses and we all knew she was preparing to spit. It was so commonplace we didn’t even look up. But when she did spit, we heard her yell, “Oh no.” We looked up. A huge wad of spit was plastered on the inside of the window. She had forgotten to roll it down. My brother Ken and I broke out into howls of laughter from the back seat. And even my father laughed.

Now, there’s something magical about spitting to boys. Projectiles are wonderful, and especially if you can produce them yourself. And on the swim team, we raised spitting to new heights. We had spitting contests. A really effective way to prank someone would be to spit into his locker. In high school, the pranks became even more vicious and the best prank of all would be to wait at the end of the pool when doing laps and when a teammate, of course smaller than you, would finish and come up for air, you’d plant a lung-er right in his face.

Now this might make you think that my high school swim team was a bunch of ne’er do wells. But in fact, my swim team had two of the smartest kids in our school. They were brothers, Paul and Mark. Their mother taught English and their father had studied at the University of Chicago. We’d go to their house on the weekend and the parents would be listening to classical music and reading the New Yorker. It was a whole new world I’d never known. Paul and Mark had three sisters, who were as smart as they, and I fell in love with all of them.

Once in the locker room after a really good spit fight after swim team practice, in a feat of braggadocio to impress Paul, I told the story about the time my mother had spit on the car window. I was almost in tears laughing so hard as I uttered the punch line:

“…and she had forgotten to roll down the window!”

I looked at Paul thinking he would really be impressed.

He was silent.

“Isn’t that hilarious?”

“I’m just amazed that your mother would think it’s OK to spit out of a car window,” he said and walked away.

Of course, peer acceptance is the most important thing when you’re an adolescent, but Paul’s remark went way beyond fitting in with the swim team. In a split second he had shown me that my entire family and I were low, common, and uneducated.

In that instant, I decided I didn’t want to be like my parents any longer. I wanted to be like Paul and his family. So I devoted myself to becoming an intellectual. I started buying and listening to classical music. I started reading only the classics. I pored over books on art. And I came to disdain my parent and their life style.

My father had dropped out of school in sixth grade and spent his life working in factories. My mother left school before graduating, worked as a maid, then in a factory, and finally as a housewife raising five children. They always planted a garden which kept us fed as my dad was often laid off in summer. I was the youngest of the family, and by the time I got to high school, they were able to take summer vacations and started square dancing. For me, who wanted to be like the Paul and Mark, this drove me nuts.

In college I studied English and then French literature. Then I went on to graduate school to become an ESL teacher. As soon as I graduated, I moved to Europe, where, as Eddie Izzard says, “the culture comes from,” which I truly believed. I returned after two years with a British bride and settled in Maryland, which was about as far away from my parents as I could get.

I got a good job using my brains, not busting my back like my parent had done, and moved to the suburbs. My wife and I raised two beautiful daughters. I kept visits to my parents at a minimum and would cringe when my mother made her weekly call to give me the news about the rest of the family. For some reason, there was a big hole in my life and I became depressed. Eventually I got divorced.

Well, I had arrived all right. I was the intellectual I had always wanted to be, but I was absolutely alone. Some good my life’s ambition had done me.

After foundering about a year, I got settled and feeling better about myself and even started dating again. Eventually, I met the woman whom I would marry. Match.com in case you’re wondering. Perfect match, by the way.

My parents took the divorce hard, of course. They were in their nineties and had been married 64 years. My marriage had only lasted 22.

Shortly after I told them, my mom developed Alzheimer’s. I had to return to my boyhood town to help my brother move my parents out of their house and into an assisted living facility connected to a nursing home.

This required doing for my parents, at their advanced age, the things they had done for me as a kid—driving them to doctor appointments, cleaning up after them, making hard decisions about their finances and living arrangements. I reckon I spent more time with them in the three years after my divorce than I had during my 22 years of marriage.

On many occasions, I found myself in a car with dad, who told story after story that showed how much he had enjoyed his life with my mother and raising us five kids. As he spoke, his stories started to remind me of what a nice childhood we did have. It was almost like those cases you hear of adults who’ve repressed memories of childhood and all of a sudden something triggers them and they come tumbling out.

And here’s what I remembered. My father taking me to an art museum at the local university and then to the big museums in Chicago. My father bringing books home from the library for me to read—The Cat In The Hat being the first. My mother standing at her ironing board on a Saturday afternoon listening to the weekly broadcast of “Live from the Met.” My parents going to night school to get their GEDs because they wanted to better themselves. And finally, my parents relentlessly telling me to study, get good grades and go to college so I wouldn’t end up working in factories as they had done.

So some 35 years after Paul’s remark caused me to turn my back on my parents I realize that what started out as a funny story about snot, had, for most of my adult life turned me into one big, stuck-up snot.

As it turned out, I was not able to ask my mother to forgive me for the way I shunned her before she slipped into that netherworld called Alzheimer’s and died. My dad, loving man that he was, forgave me.

Claudio Monteverdi: Laetatus Sum

In the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia and most of the Mideast had become fantastically wealthy after OPEC came into power and the oil boom, well, exploded.  Suddenly, all the countries wanted to “modernize,” and they figured they needed a western education to do so. With oil revenues, they gave scholarships to their young men to study in the United States. To get into US universities, they had to pass an English proficiency test.  A person I’d met had told me with a master’s degree in ESL you could get a job in Riyad making $60,000 a year and live in a rent free apartment.

After working 10 hours a day in a factory making $4.00 and hour with my useless degree in French literature, 60 grand sounded pretty grand to me.  My alma mater, Indiana University in Bloomington, had a one-year master’s program.   I applied and visited the department, where I met the head of the department, a friendly mustachioed linguistics professor named Harry Gradman.  It turned out Harry had just set up a deal with the Saudi government to bring students to IU to learn English here. Harry offered me full tuition and gave me my first teaching assignment on the spot.  So in the summer, 1978, I returned to Bloomington to begin working on my first master’s.

My students were amazing.  Many of them were middle aged, already had college degrees and some were married.  They were full of life and I immediately took a liking to them.  It must have been reciprocal, for they soon started inviting me to dinners at various students’ apartments. These were great, men-only events, and followed a similar format.  You’d arrived and the first thing you noticed was the smell–the air was thick with the smoke of Marlboros which was mercilessly cut by the exquisite aroma coming from the kitchen made by a pot of  chicken and rice, seasoned with dried lemons, sumac and cinnamon, stewing on the stove.

I don’t remember drinking any alcohol, but a few of the students, sometimes had pot.  I remember once sitting on the couch with a student in a colleague’s class–a long-haired philosophy professor, probably ten years older than me.  We got in a discussion about existentialism, and then moved onto classical music.  He said he loved to get stoned and listen to symphonies because “It feels like the notes are coming out of the speakers and flowing over me like water.  It’s wonderful.”

Eventually, the host would announce that the food was ready.  Everyone would jump to to help spread out newspapers on the floor.  Then someone would bring out a roll of aluminum foil, tear off a few sheet, and then pleat them together and make a large serving platter to put on the paper.  The host would come in carrying the pot of chicken and rice and pour it out onto the aluminum foil.  Shoes off, we’d sit in a circle around the stew and they taught me how to eat with my right hand.  The food was superb (I wish I had some right now).

The youngest of my students, Badr, was thin with clear skin, looking about 18. When I first saw him in class I was a bit surprised because he was so slight.  He did not resemble the Saudis at all.  His accent was so heavy and he was such a novice speaker I sometimes could not understand him.

I didn’t really know squat about english Language pedagogy (or andragogy since they were grown ups).  My method of teaching english was to bring in newspaper articles and have them read them out loud and I’d ask them questions about the content.

One day, I brought in an article about philosophy.  I asked if anyone had heard of existentialism.  The discussion was pretty painful as the article was above their level of English.  Afterwards, Badr came up and said, “You know Sart?” “Who”” I asked. “Sart, John Bol Sart.” I suddenly realized he was saying Jean-Paul Sartre.  “You know who Jean-Paul Sartre is?” “Yes, I read much philosophy.  I want to get my phd in philosophy.”

Badre told me that he was originally from Yemen of Somali origin.  His father was a successful businessman who’d moved to Abu Dhabi in the Emirates, which were seven small Arab states that had formed a country that was even richer than Saudi Arabia.

Badr had a beautiful soul–he was as enamored of learning as I was and we became fast friends. He went on to get his phd in Political Science, moved back to Abu Dhabi, where he is a policy analyst who often writes insightful articles for a major newspaper there.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with today’s piece by Monteverdi, Laetatus Sum, which means “I was glad.”  It come from Psalm 122  and according to Wikipedia, this is the text:

 

  1. I was glad when they said unto me : We will go into the house of the Lord.
  2. Our feet shall stand in thy gates : O Jerusalem.
  3. Jerusalem is built as a city : that is at unity in itself.
  4. For thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord : to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the Lord.
  5. For there is the seat of judgement : even the seat of the house of David.
  6. O pray for the peace of Jerusalem : they shall prosper that love thee.
  7. Peace be within thy walls : and plenteousness within thy palaces.
  8. For my brethren and companions’ sakes : I will wish thee prosperity.
  9. Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good.

 

I discovered it sometime in graduate school at IU in a boxed collection of Monteverdi’s masses called, Selva morale e spirituale.

It is one of the most knee-weakeningly beautiful pieces of music I know. It makes me extremely happy where I hear it, as it did when I first did some 38 years ago.

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