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.

Sergei Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky

The fall of 1976 was a heady time for me as I started hanging around two geniuses in my college town. (See story below today’s piece.) One of them introduced me to today’s piece by Prokofiev.

The early days of Soviet Russia before World War Two, must have been a heady time for the arts. Artists like Kandinsky, Archipenko, Eisenstein, Gorky, and Prokofiev were trying to reinvent their art forms according to the liberation of humankind from the shackles of the bourgeois mentality. The new medium of moving pictures revolutionized story telling and allowed artists (and propagandist, of course) to telegraph emotions and ideas in a more visceral and emotional way, especially to the “uneducated” masses. Eisenstein invented a technique that the French called montage which involved creative editing to juxtapose strong visual images with emotional ones to deliver a greater psychological impact.

An example of the blending of the arts can be seen in Eisenstein’s film, Alexander Nevsky. Eisenstein asked Prokofiev to compose the music for the film of a Russian hero, who had routed a Swedish invasion in 1240 and two years later defeated Teutonic Knights in a famous battle on a frozen lake. Prokofiev and Eisenstein worked closely together throughout the shooting of the film. Sometimes Eisenstein would do a short episode and give it to Prokofiev to set to music and other times the composer would write a piece and Eisenstein would change the rhythm of the film’s action to suit the music.

From the music he composed for the soundtrack, Prokofiev created a cantata in seven movement, one for each major section of the film. The choral parts have strong Russian melodies sung by those deep Russian basses and contralto. They depict Russia under the yoke of the Mongols, the hypocritical Teutonic Crusaders, a call to arms designed to rouse the ethnic pride of the people, the battle on the ice, the ravages of war, and Nevsky’s triumphs. Considering that it was written on the verge of World War Two, the movie and music was obviously meant to rally the Russians once again to fight the Germans.

I especially like the battle on the ice. It starts with a low rumbling of the chorus that depicts the troops riding toward each other. The Russian and Teutonic hymns are played again to represent the opposing forces. The pace quickens to a gallop and then to a cacophonous clash of cymbals, horns, and drums that conjure up the chaos of a medieval battle. This matching of sound to action has made “art music” accessible to the masses and it also establish the use of music as an important part of creating a blockbuster hit. Imagine a Star Wars movie with someone playing a tinny piano or wheezing organ at the edge of the stage!


Kurt Gets Cooking

During the fall of 1976, my girlfriend, Lacy, traveled to England, leaving to me a hovel that she had occupied the summer before. In turn for free rent, I had to serve as janitor, living in the bowels of a sprawling apartment building, sandwiched between the laundry and the boiler room. I escaped as much as possible-to bars, coffee shops, the local vegetarian restaurant, and the houses of friends.

Coincidentally, a number of people who had orbited around the French house had moved, as I had done to the West side of campus to a nice neighborhood of small bungalows just which bordered old town Bloomington. The other day I wrote about how the house of Thom Klem became a kind of refuge where I started to seriously study cooking and expanded my interest of music into international folk and classical music.

Nearby lived David T*, another interesting character whom I have already described. He had moved in with an eccentric genius inventor named Peter. Peter had studied bassoon and one day while playing in a symphony orchestra, he conceived of the idea for four channel, or quadraphonic, sound. Not knowing anything about electronics, he gave up playing to devote all his time studying electrical engineering. He came up with a prototype which he then took to a large stereo company. They could not decide whether the time was right for this product. It would have entailed abandoning the current two-channel LPs and there was another system that a rival company had developed which they were evaluating. To keep Peter happy while they evaluated his idea and conducted test marketing, they would send him a check for $75,000 every so often.

Peter had expensive tastes and had used some of the money to go to a French cooking school. To keep his hand in electronics, he also repaired stereos at the local audiophile store. Visiting Dave and Peter’s was always an interesting adventure for me, who also was a bit of a tinkerer and loved to cook. The living room had a huge Sony Triniton television and on a table in the middle of the room was what looked like a disassembled stereo receiver. I soon learned that this was Peter’s research unit and from time to time he would go over, switch it on, switch a few wires around and ask “How does it sound now?”

The kitchen had every gadget a professional chef would need. On a wall hung valuable thick French copper sauce pans. A magnetic bar behind the stove held a dizzying array of cleavers, skewers, ladles, spatulas, tenderizers, saws and Sabatier knives. Atop a table sat a coffee grinder and a range of coffee makers–Melita drip funnels, espresso machines, French presses, and Turkish coffee boilers. Suspended from the ceiling hung a set of black anodized cook ware.

Once when I visited, Peter was busy making a pate. He lined a pate pan with bacon and filled it with ground veal, mixed with Cognac. This he covered and put in a bain marie in the oven to cook slowly for about 6 hours.

Peter liked living on the edge of strong tastes. At the local coffee house, “Two Bit Rush” they used to have an espresso happy hour where you could get a demitasse for 25 cents from four to six. Peter used to buy the dark Italian espresso bean, grind them, and then make himself huge cups of drip coffee out of it. This would keep him awake so he could work into the wee hours. Another time I visited, they offered me a Martini. They kept their Beefeater’s Gin in the freezer, and when they poured it, it was viscous and caused the glass to instantly frost. And it was there that I learned that you create an infinite variety of dishes with the myriad types of pasta.

One of their favorite dishes was made with orichietti. These are small dimpled disks of pasta that the Italians have named because they resemble little ears. While these boiled away on the stove, Peter would squeeze several cloves of garlic through a little piston press into a bowl. Next he added about a quarter of a cup of olive oil and about a cup of parmesan, which of course he had just freshly grated. For seasoning, he would add freshly ground pepper and nutmeg. For a variation he might add sliced black olives. When the orichietti were al dente he would quickly strain them and dump them piping hot on top of the cheese and garlic mixture and toss vigorously. The heady aroma of this dish was staggering.

David seemed to fit in well with the odd hours and intellectual stimulation at Peter’s. His own father had taught him the rudiments of electronics and he had all kinds of phones, short wave radios and electronic equipment. He had started out studying German and Comparative literature, but over the previous two years taught himself Russian. Peter had a top of the line IBM Selectric typewriter with interchangeable font balls. David had bought a Russian font set and had hit upon the scheme of typing term papers for Russian graduate students. He proudly showed me how he had mastered the remapped keyboard.

As I have mentioned before, David was an avid fan of 20th century music. Loving all things Russian as well, it was quite common to visit his house and find him reading Dostoyevsky in the original or listening to something by Prokofiev or Shostakovich. I believe one time they had a Sergei Eisenstein film festival on campus, and a number of us went along to see The Battleship Potemkin, Ivan the Terrible, and Alexander Nevsky.


Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilich: Marche Slave, Op.31

In my last post, I mentioned that during the second semester of my freshman year at college in 1974, I took a piano class. This, I thought, would be my big chance. Since I loved classical music so much, I reasoned, I’d have no trouble mastering this instrument and play the pieces I loved so dearly. Pieces like Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies or Rachmaninoff’sPrelude in C Sharp Minor.

This is one of the benefits of youth: you really think you can do anything. Unfortunately, for some reason, I turned out to be quite inept. I did learn all the major scales in both hand, but I couldn’t quite memorize the notes. It was as if I was back in 6th grade band class with my clarinet all over again trying to figure out something that didn’t make any sense to me. It would be easy to blame it on the teacher, trying to learn in a group, or the basic instruction book we used, which contained pretty uninspired pieces.

Deep down, I suspect it was just because I set such unrealistic expectations for myself and the class. I remember, shortly after starting the class, sitting down with my copy of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor, and just staring at the music. I could not figure out how to translate what we had gone over in class to what was on the page. It was even more frustrating trying the Satie, since that piece is slow and sounds so simple. What I didn’t understand is that it might take years training one’s mind to keep track of every finger and two feet.

Think about what happens when a person plays the piano. In any one time slice, you could have every finger on a different key. A fraction of a second, those ten digits have to rearrange themselves to form the next chord. At the same time, your mind has vary the time each one hits, the downward pressure and the upward release. Try tapping out one rhythm with one hand. Then add a different rhythm in the second. Multiply that by 5 and you get an idea of how complex. It’s almost like you have to have ten separate consciousnesses. You must train yourself to do that (through hours and hours of practice) so that it becomes automatic, so that you don’t have to think about it for thinking about it would trip you up.  Since I wasn’t polydextrous, I gave it up after that semester.

As I said, I could blame the book, but it did contain one classical piece, which was fun to play. That was an excerpt from today’s piece, Tchaikowski’s Marche Slave. As the name suggests, it is a wonderfully Slavic sounding piece. You could imagine yourself on a boat going down the Neva River watching a troop of Cossacks ride by. It shares that wonderfully ponderous and lumbering feeling with other Russian music.

It wasn’t until some twenty years later, however, that I actually heard the full orchestral version. It is a kind of pastiche of various melodies. The first part is based on that single Russian theme, which in a not very creative way, Tchaikowsky repeats and varies about 14 times. A second section reminds you a bit of parts out of the 1812 Overture and fortunately he switches to a different tune–this time based on the Russian national anthem. The feeling of that section is at times more pensive and begins to hint at some of the beauty of his later works. Unfortunately, he slips back to the opening melody once or twice. In the final session, he does pick up the tempo a bit, repeating the national anthem and then launching into a brisk march, sounding, at times, a bit like a patriotic parade.

Nowadays, I tend to eschew such propagandistic pieces. Still, Tchaikowsky was fairly young when he wrote this and so was I when I learned to play it in Eijnar Krantz’ piano class nearly 40  years ago.

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