July 3 birthday of Leos Janáček: Taras Bulba–Rhapsody for Orchestra (1918)

Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928) is the second most famous Czech composer after Dvorak. I’m a bigger fan of his “Sinfonetta,” but Taras Bulba showcases his syncretism of classical, folk and 20th century musical currents.

Penderecki: Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima

I turned 60 this past summer. That means I was 9 when Malcolm X was shot and 10 when the former racist, Lyndon Johnson, signed the voting rights act in 1965. I was 12 when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. They didn’t call Lee Harvey Oswald or James Earl Ray, “thugs” or “terrorists.” But the fear they inspired put a palpable damper on the optimism for change that had begun in the early 1960s.  The government didn’t help.  J. Edgar Hoover, tyrant obviously as mentally disturbed by his inability to reconcile his own sexuality, (like Hitler, by the way), had gone after King, the Blank Panthers, The Students for A Democratic Society with wiretaps and even blatant propaganda.  For example, I remember seeing this billboard on my way to Boy Scout camp one summer.

Martin-Luther-King-Jr-Communist-Training-Camp-Billboard-670x419

Most urban whites fled to the suburbs after the riots of 1968 and the forced busing of African Americans from poverty stricken school districts to “white,” schools increased the created animosity among whites and reversed the dream of racial harmony that had started. Today, I heard on Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, that the African American Hip-Hop artist, actor, and movie producer, Ice Cube, had been bused into a white neighborhood. When asked what he thought of that, he said it was great, because it exposed him to other people, other music, other ideas, and showed that there was a different world out there. Listen to the full interview here.

The pessimistic funk that followed in the decades following was like a Sword of Damocles handing over the world’s head.  To dull the pain, the 70s turned into what Tom Wolfe called the “Me Decade.”  It should have been called “the me-coke-disco-addiction decade.”  Wolfe called this “atomized individualism.”  Political leaders invented more bogeymen–Brezhnev, Pol Pot, The Cold War, OPEC, The Yom Kippur War, Bangladesh, Idi Amin, the overthrow by the USA of a democratically elected government in Chile, the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics, skyjackings, Watergate, the murder of Steve Biko, the hostage crisis.  For more fun reading, look at Wikipedia’s entry on the 1970s.  Toward the end, there was some slight hope–the Mideast Peace accord brokered by Jimmy Carter.

I would normally say, “Let’s just forget the 1980s.”  The Reagan-Bush years that started systematically disassembling the middle class to enable corporate soul-less materialism.  But then, in 1989, something miraculous happened: the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Suddenly the sword was lifted and we no longer had to live under the constant fear of nuclear annihilation.

So it took 21 years, from 1968 to 1989, almost the turn of one generation for the zeitgeist in the US, at least, start to change. The 1990s, by contrast, brought optimism back, and our Millenial Children grew up in an optimistic time.  The prosperity of the Clinton years, the advances in computers and the internet, the Oslo accord, the Convention on Bio-Diversity, WHO removing homosexuality from its list of diseases, and of course Harry Potter.

2000s–back to fear after 9/11 and the real start of another dark ages of racial hatred.  Then, amazingly, in 2008, 40 years after 1968, the US elects Barack Obama as president.  In a way, since then, it’s like the US went back in time.  The 2008 financial crisis didn’t help, which decimated the middle class, and like most countries in the midst of economic hardship, xenophobia has started to soar.  Will it take another generation, until 2028, for us to purge ourselves if this insanity.  Maybe the Millenials who grew up for the most part, without the racist attitudes of their grandparents, will save us.

The other day, I was talking to a colleague about half my age about the passionate speech that President Obama gave to try to stop gun violence that kills about 7 children per day in the US (that’s about 16,000 preventable deaths in the last seven years.)  That lead into a discussion about how crazy the political process has become and the active and coded racism that has been directed at Obama since then.  HE’S ASKING FOR COMPASSION, PEOPLE.  Instead the next day, the New York Times does a report on the Twitter-storm that the Republican candidates’ shiny boots have caused.  Is there any rational political discourse any more?  I said to her, “At sixty, it’s really disappointing having to watch this racism a second time in my lifetime.” The quote by George Santayana comes to mind: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So for today, I chose this shocking piece of music by Krzysztof Penderecki, composed in 1960.

Penderecki wrote it in the late 50s (around the age of 25) under the influence of composers like Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg.  It uses microtones, making it sound particularly discordant, and has the performers bow behind the bridge, slap their instruments, or improvise at random points on their instruments’ scale.  Of course serial and atonal music is a type of intellectual game, but when he first heard it performed by an orchestra, Penderecki experienced such an emotional reaction, that he dedicated the piece to the victims of Hiroshima, saying “Let the Threnody express my firm belief that the sacrifice of Hiroshima will never be forgotten and lost.”

According to Wikipedia, “A threnody is a song, hymn or poem of mourning composed or performed as a memorial to a dead person.

It is interesting to watch this version which scrolls along the score as the music plays:

If this music sounds somewhat familiar to you, it’s because Stanley Kubrick used it in the film, “The Shining.” It evokes horror. The horror of young children looking up into the sky at the sound of a plane and then hear bombs fall (think Syria today) followed by a hot blast that either rips them apart or melts away their flesh. That this is going on in the 21st Century is unconscionable. If you have children, or remember how beautiful life might have been as a child, just think of the horror and fear and desolation and senselessness when anyone dies from preventable violence.
I didn’t necessarily want to start the New Year on such a bleak note. In fact, every day, I meet young people who seem not to have grown up with the biases and limitations of the racism practiced by their parent or directed against their ethnic group. It is refreshing and gives me hope.

Penderecki turned hopeful too, and his later works have become more straightforward. About this he says: “The avant-garde gave one an illusion of universalism. The musical world of Stockhausen, Nono, Boulez and Cage was for us, the young – hemmed in by the aesthetics of socialist realism, then the official canon in our country – a liberation…I was quick to realise however, that this novelty, this experimentation and formal speculation, is more destructive than constructive; I realised the Utopian quality of its Promethean tone’. Penderecki concluded that he was ‘saved from the avant-garde snare of formalism by a return to tradition’.

Here’s an example of his later work: “Violin Concerto No.2 ‘Metamorphosen'”

 

Leos Janacek: Sinfonietta

Brass music rarely does it for me. Janacek’s “Sinfonietta,” however, full of brass and timpani crashes, really stirs me. Composed for a gymnastic festival in 1926, when the composer was 72, it is filled with themes, moods, and colors that evoke the passion and pride of the Czech people. Some parts are bombastic, others have passages filled with shimmering violins that fill the piece with light. It also contains a number of peasant-inspired passages, which shows in a way that Janacek was a forerunner of Bartok, who studied and expanded Western music with the introduction of complicated “primitivistic” harmonies and rhythms.

Janacek experienced a second spate of creativity toward the end of his life, from which “Sinfonietta” comes. Supposedly that phase was inspired by a married woman, 38 years his younger with whom he formed a passionate, but platonic, relationship. A new lease on life. We don’t always know it, but often receive the opportunity to have new leases on life. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to find people who can point out when it’s necessary to abandoned old forms of thought or behaviors in favor of new and fertile ones.

Buy MP3 or CD of Sinfonietta on Amazon

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