Puccini, Giacomo: “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot

During my second semester of college at Indiana University at South Bend, I enrolled in a piano class. We met in the basement of the main complex and the room contained about 10 electric pianos. These were wired into the teacher’s console and we wore headphones so we could hear ourselves practice. From time to time, the teacher would flip a switch, listen to how we were doing, and give a few suggestions.

Our teacher was a rather flamboyant old Swedish gentleman named Eijnar Krantz. He probably was the only professor I think who ever taught me who wore a suit every day, and definitely the only one who had a silk handkerchief stuffed into his breast pocket. Professor Krantz had huge bushy salt and pepper eyebrows that matched the hair that he wore slicked back. Thin and moutstachioed, he looked a bit like someone out of a Fred Astaire film–kind of dapper, actually.

Next to me in class sat a guy about my age, who one day started a conversation with me. What struck me about him was his high, dramatic voice. In fact, he turned out to be a tenor who was studying voice. He had to take a piano proficiency class in fulfillment of his music degree. His name was Mike Snyder and we eventually became friends.

Of course, Mike loved opera and was very enthusiastic when I told him how much I liked classical music. “Well,” he said to me. “You must come to my house and hear Bjorling sing Nessun Dorma.” Before then the only tenors I knew by name were Mario Lanza and Enrico Caruso. “Who’s Bjorling?” I asked. “Why,” Mike responded, “he was only the greatest tenor of all time.”

I was quite happy to go along to Mike’s house. After all, until then, I’d never met anyone who shared my passion for music.

Mike lived in a middle class section of South Bend in a small bungalow with his parents. The day I paid him a visit, I found him in front of his house pitching a baseball to his little brother. That struck me a bit odd. Because most of the athletes in my high school were pretty much anti-intellectual, I thought that having a love of music precluded an interest in spectator sports. Of course, my swimming hundreds of laps in practice was probably as boring to him as his playing baseball was to me, so maybe Mike, like me, had used listening to music as a way of passing the time.

Mike had a prodigious collection of opera recordings and highlights. He had several recordings of Jussi Bjorling singing Nessun Dorma and he discussed the merits of each one and even played me other recordings of it by other singers.

This was in 1974, mind you, and Placido Domingo was just getting a reputation, and Pavarotti was almost unknown. Jan Pierce and Robert Merrill were still alive and dominated the American opera scene. So I had never heard “Nessun Dorma” before, and it sent shivers down my spine. Nowadays, because of the three tenors, it’s become pretty hackneyed, but Bjorling’s recording is still unique enough that I almost consider it a different piece of music altogether.

Mike was particularly cruel to Placido Domingo. He had a recording of some work that a very young Domingo sang with a very old Callas in which Domingo’s voice breaks. “Listen to that!” Mike shouted when he played it for me. “It sounds like he’s singing inside of a can or something. Or like his head is in a bag filled with cotton.” I guess Domingo’s voice has matured enough by now. He’s sought-after and is even featured in his own Rolex Oyster magazine advertisement.

I enjoyed hanging around with Mike. He introduced me to a lot of good vocal music and a number number of artistic acquaintances whom he had met through his music studies. It was hard to believe there was such a cultural elite in South Bend. Of course, some of them weren’t so elite. My dates are starting to blur a bit. Mike eventually moved in with another musician, named Jerry, and later they had a falling out. Mike said Jerry had started hanging out with some pretty rough “low-lifes.” About a year later, Mike told me that Jerry had been found stabbed in his apartment.

What I liked most about Mike was his complete lack of self-doubt. He knew he one day he would become a successful and famous tenor. He got odd jobs singing as a cantor and was not afraid at all of performing. In a way, he taught me that you can have a lot of talent, but you also need attitude.

Do I need to say anything about “Nessun Dorma?” It comes from the opera, “Turandot,” which is about a contest to guess three riddles proposed by a Chinese princess. Should a suitor try and fail, he would be executed. A prince named Calaf appears and answers the questions. Turandot does not want to marry Calaf, so he says that if she can guess his name by dawn, he will release her. The emperor announces that no one must sleep (nessun dorma) until the prince’s name is discovered. Calaf sings this aria in which he says that he will only reveal his identity when he is ready and will make Turandot love him. The last line, which is the piercing high note of the tenor’s aria is “Vincero” (I will win!).

To me what is so beautiful about this aria is the oriental feel to it. Puccini uses that to create a series of climaxes that never quite seem to resolve. The aria climbs and climbs and only finally resolves on the final line.

Unfortunately, I have lost track of Mike over the years. Were I to meet him now, I’d start by thanking him for introducing me to this piece. It would also be nice to know whether he “won” his dream as well.

Puccini Biography

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Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No.1 in F, BWV.1046

The first movement of the Concerto No.1 in F starts suddenly with the entire chamber orchestra playing full force at a rather brisk tempo. This is a joyous movement, full of life and cheer. The second movement, by contrast, is quite somber and meditative, almost sad, like something that would be appropriate at a funeral. Fortunately, the third movements picks up the quick pace again, and is full of those complex, filigree of melodies winding their way around each that I so love in Bach. This concerto is unique among his six Brandenburgs, because it has a fourth movement which is divided into four sections: a minuet, a trio, a polka, and a final trio.

The movement starts out in a quite stately fashion, perfect for “upper-crusties” mincing around in brocade jackets and powdered wigs. This is a grounding theme, to which the piece returns after playing the minuet and polka. In this movement he uses two horns, three oboes, a bassoon, and violin at various either in solos or trios. In this Youtube recording at the 5 minute and 15 second mark, Bach gives it all over to the woodwinds, who perk along at a jaunty clip in with an almost  music box-like quaintness.  That little section, only about a minute long, never failed to surprise me and lift my spirits.

And in the spring of 1974, my spirits needed lifting.

That semester I had transferred from Purdue University to Indiana University at South Bend (IUSB) and moved back in with my parents.  That was a bit of a failure in my family’s eyes, I think, since it meant reject Purdue, where my three brothers had gotten their bachelor’s degrees.  It was also kind of a bummer living at home when, by this time, I was supposed to be out on my own.

At IUSB, I hung around with two friends whom I’d known nearly all my life–Doug and Mary. Doug’s parents had come to the States from Germany to work at a German-owned and operated factory in Michigan City, Indiana. Mary’s mom taught high school home economics. Doug and Mary had been sweethearts in middle school–Doug was on the basketball team and Mary was a cheerleader–and though they had falling out of love in high school, they remained friends.

Mary used to help me study for my Western civilization history class (I just couldn’t remember all those dates) and we even went out on a few dates, though they were more friendly than serious. This was during my skeptical phase, and I think her father, being a war veteran, thought I was a communist.

About this time Transcendental Meditation had become very popular in the United States. In high school, Doug had let his hair grow long and had become something of a hippie. At college one day, he spotted a poster advertising a course in TM, which he attended. He came back a convert and started doing things like fasting, reading Ram Dass, and practicing yoga. One day, Mary came running into a study room to find me. Doug’s fasting had caused him to faint in the library, and he had fallen against a bookshelf and split open his cheek. She asked me if I could drive him to the emergency room of the hospital so he could get stitched up.

Despite this ominous introduction to eastern philosophy, I did take an interest meditation.

However, I tended to try to approach it from the western Judeo-Christian tradition I was raised in. So I started investigating Christian mysticism. I read Thomas Merton‘s autobiography, “The Seven Story Mountain,” and some of his later writings in which he started to approach Buddhist thought. Merton mentioned the “Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius and Thomas A Kempis’ “The Imitation of Christ,” which I also read. These taught ways of acting in a humble way and certain guided imagery activities to put oneself in Christ’s sandals, so to speak. I don’t remember if it was in these or some other medieval writer’s book, but when I came to a part where you were supposed to imagine yourself hanging on the cross, well, it became a bit too much for me.

Looking back, these “tortured” thoughts and occupations make me cringe a bit.  I was trying to work out my own spirituality and trying to find my way as a wannabe intellectual, desperate to have a meaningful relationship with a soul mate.  The latter took far too many years to finally discover, and so in 1974, I had to make do with the wonderfully uplifting music of Bach.

Biography

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