#384 DVORAK THE GOLDEN SPINNING WHEEL, OPUS 109

#384

DVORAK

THE GOLDEN SPINNING WHEEL, OPUS 109

PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA
ALAN GILBERT, CONDUCTOR

I have to confess that it has taken a long time for me to warm to the music of Dvorak (1841-1904). The Czech composer’s impressive body of work was primarily symphonic—nine symphonies—and I’ve made many, many attempts to “get into” them. Although my musician friends may not hear those symphonies the same way I do, it has always felt to me that Dvorak is continually modulating, continually changing key, never giving the listener TIME to appreciate him.

But perhaps this says more about me than about Dvorak.

*****

I had not intentionally heard much Dvorak while growing up until I read about Brahms’ association with him. Brahms, as my readers know, is a composer whose music—all of it—I know and love. Brahms (b. 1833) was not much older than Dvorak when he was a judge in the Austrian State Prize competition in 1874. It was then that he—Brahms—heard Dvorak’s entries into that competition—a truly massive submission consisting of fifteen works including two symphonies, several overtures and a song cycle. Brahms was totally impressed by Dvorak’s music. Dvorak won first prize, and his career, mainly centered in Prague, became considerably more solid. Up to this point in time, Dvorak had lived in near-poverty conditions. He did not own a piano, and at the time of his submission to this contest, he lived with five other men, one of whom owned a spinet piano and allowed Dvorak to compose on it.

In 1877, Dvorak entered the Austrian Prize competition once more, this time submitting his Moravian Duets and his Piano Concerto. Brahms was so struck with Dvorak’s talent that, after Dvorak once again won, he made Dvorak’s career part of his life’s work. He recommended Dvorak to his own publisher, and did everything he could, with his extensive connections all over the continent, to boost Dvorak’s career. Astonishingly, Brahms even copy-proofed and edited Dvorak’s scores, something that was just unheard of–the greatest composer in the world offering to do what was essentially regarded secretarial work for a MUCH lesser known composer. It would be as if Tolstoy, in his day, ASKED to edit the works of an unknown author from another country.

Dvorak’s career now blossomed, becoming international. The British, in particular, loved his music—he was invited to London nine times. Dvorak came to America in the 1890’s, where he directed the newly created National Conservatory of Music, an institution that—quite unusual for its time—admitted blacks and women on equal footing with white men. Dvorak’s main purpose in coming to the states, however, was compositional: in the same way that he had been incorporating Czech folk songs in his own music, he felt that there was an “American Music” waiting to be discovered in African-American and Native American music, and that it should become the basis for future American music. He struck up a great friendship with Harry Burleigh, one of the very first African-American composers. Burleigh introduced Dvořák to traditional American spirituals.

Dvorak’s secretary while he was in New York was a young Czech, whose family was from a Czech community in Iowa. Dvorak spent the summer of 1893 there, absorbing as much of what he felt to be the “real” America as he could. Back in New York, he had been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write a major work. His Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”)—far and away his most popular work to this day—was a rousing success, and can be seen as a distillation of the American influence upon Dvorak’s musical sensibilities. Its second movement, Largo, incorporates the famous spiritual-like song, “Goin’ Home.”

Although Dvorak returned to Europe in 1895—the conservatory had fallen on hard financial times, and he was truly homesick—his reputation and influence on music—and on American music—was substantial.

*****

Dvorak’s entire output, as I mentioned, is substantial. I’ll be returning to him at a later date here with his Serenade for Strings. But, I did find, in Dvorak’s symphonic poems, what to me is the “real” Dvorak—a talent who keeps you continually interested and who does not feel the compulsion to continually be changing keys, thinking perhaps that is the best way to keep listeners involved.

Dvorak wrote five symphonic poems in his early fifties: The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel, The Wild Dove, and A Hero’s Song. With the exception of A Hero’s Song, which some consider to be Dvorak’s “musical” autobiography, the other four symphonic poems are based on poetry by Karel Jaromir Erben, a great Czech folklorist.

The stories are essentially fairy tales. The story of the Golden Spinning Wheel is definitely NOT your typical happy-ending, nice-moral-of-the-story fairy tale. It is VERY Stephen King-ish. Here is a synopsis:

While out riding, a king happens upon a young lady, Dornička, and falls in love with her. He asks her step-mother to bring her to his castle. The step-mother and step-sister set off towards the king’s castle with Dornička. On the way, they murder her, hack off her feet and hands, and cut out her eyes. The step-sister poses as Dornička and marries the king, after which he is called away to battle.

Meanwhile, in the forest, a magician finds Dornička’s remains and decides to bring her back to life. He sends a page to the castle to persuade the step-sister to part with “two feet” in return for a golden spinning wheel, “two hands” for a golden distaff, and “two eyes” for a golden spindle. The body complete again, the magician brings Dornička back to life.

The king returns from battle and hears the golden spinning wheel tell the gruesome details of Dornička’s murder. The king goes off into the forest to be reunited with her. The two murderesses are thrown to the wolves.

*****

How’s THAT for a bedtime story for your kids?

I am linking to a great performance, which is further heightened by its inclusion of the story appearing onscreen as the work progresses. I feel this entire work—despite the gruesomeness of its programmatic “plot”–is absolutely lovely. Maybe you will think the same thing, I hope so.

Comment

#383 JOHANN CHRISTIAN BACH SINFONIA IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 18, NO. 2

#383

JOHANN CHRISTIAN BACH

SINFONIA IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 18, NO. 2

Everyone is familiar with the name J.S. Bach, for many the greatest composer who ever lived, a claim that is very hard to dispute. But, JSB’s life work can be seen, in retrospect, as the summing of an era—the Baroque—the tying together of all loose ends—the writing of counterpoint better than anyone ever had or ever would.

If you are of a certain mindset, you believe that the history of music evolves in cycles—of simplicity, followed by complexity, followed by simplicity, etc. The premise in such a belief, I guess, is that the human psyche can only take so much of the same thing—whether simplicity or complexity—for long periods of time. It is easy to understand that the rhythmic complexity of Middle Ages works was followed by the (initial) simplicity of the Renaissance. And that the complexity of the Baroque—personified by JSB—was succeeded by the charming innocence of the Rococo. I’m not sure how well such a theory holds together in total, and especially when we consider the profusion of both the “simple” and the “complex” in so-called modern music—say, from 1900 on.

BUT – what does seem clear is that the sons of Bach were NOT going to continue in the direction their father had gone. This is especially true of my favorite of the Bach sons—Johann Christian Bach. It should probably be re-iterated here that Bach was prolific not only in music, but in procreation, having fathered twenty children by two wives.

Johann Christian Bach was Bach’s eighteenth child and his last son. The Bach family had been a guild of composers for generations by the time JSB was born. So, if you were a Bach, you were a composer. Some, naturally, were better than others. Older than Johann Christian were his brothers Wilhelm Friedemann (b. 1710—JSB age 25), Carl Phillip Emanuel (b. 1714, JSB 29), and Johann Christoph (b. 1732, JSB 47), all credible composers. JSB was 50 years old when his youngest son, Johann Christian was born. So perhaps—with this age difference—it was inevitable that this youngest son would have the most progressive and non-Bachian palette of all the Bach sons.

I have mentioned before my love of Mozart. It only takes a few bars of any Mozart work—and perhaps, especially, the works he wrote as a child—works that were, both at the time and in retrospect light years beyond his adult contemporaries—to make me soporific, like a highly alert drug addict—if you’ll pardon the incongruity of such a description.

THE greatest influence—certainly from my standpoint—on the prodigious 8-year old Mozart—was Johann Christian Bach, the “London Bach.” In 1762, at the age of 27, JC Bach premiered three of his operas in London. Queen Charlotte was so infatuated with him that he became her music master, and lived in London till the end of his life in 1782. (He was known in London as John Bach.) Music historians—especially those who specialize in Mozart—remember JC as the very young Mozart’s friend, mentor, and promoter—in that order. He was extraordinarily gracious to the little boy during his London stay, which occurred in 1764. I love Johann Christian Bach because he was so giving and so selfless to the young Mozart.

He did not treat Mozart as a little boy—there was absolutely no condescension toward Mozart due to his age because JC recognized that he was interacting with a genius of a very high order. He taught the young Wolfgang a lot about orchestration, about the style galant so popular in that day, and in general, about the music profession. Mozart was never the same after the time spent in London with JC Bach.

One can hear this (JC) Bachian influence in many of the early Mozart symphonies. If Johann Christian sounds lightweight to our ears, it may be because we associate his name with his fathers, where everything was HEAVY. But JC is thoroughly delightful. Mozart could not have had a better, more professional and accomplished mentor than Johann Christian Bach.

Since JC himself was only 29 when Mozart visited London (for an extended stay), he was at that certain age where he could just barely imagine himself to be old enough to be Mozart’s father—he was far more like a big brother—and one who “knew the ropes.” He spent a full five months with Mozart, and can be—should be—regarded as the only real teacher that Mozart ever had—or ever needed.

I know I’ve spent as much time here talking about Mozart as about Johann Christian Bach. But that is only to set the stage for one of his most joyful works—his symphony in B-flat major. The symphony was at the very beginning of its evolution, which had stemmed from the opera overture. This is one of the earliest examples of the three movement symphony. MELODY is the keyword when thinking about JC Bach. You will enjoy this work.

I think I am incapable of separating music from its historical context. It is so easy to hear the formality and the repose that characterized all of Europe in this time period—the 1780’s…

1st movt Allegro assai 0:00
2nd movt Andante 3:16
3rd movt Presto 6:48

Picture is Johann Christian Bach painted by Thomas Gainsborough.

 

Comment

#382 ISTIKLAL MARSI (TURKISH NATIONAL ANTHEM)

#382

ISTIKLAL MARSI
(TURKISH NATIONAL ANTHEM)

An interesting sidelight to the creation of modern-day Turkey—as it jettisoned its Ottoman past—as well as a reflection of its visionary founder, Kemal Ataturk—is that the national anthem of Turkey did not come about in a hurry or without design.

Turkey did not win its independence until 1923. This came about in an unusual way: after World War I, Turkey—or what was left of the defeated Ottoman Empire—was occupied by no less than five nations: Britain, France, Italy, Armenia, and Greece. The War of Independence was fought by the Turkish National Movement on three fronts against these occupiers. Ataturk was not only a brilliant military leader and strategist but a political leader on par with any great leader from any era.

A small part of his foresight involved the creation of a national anthem—two years before the Turkish War for Independence had even been won! It was inevitable in 1921, that should the Turkish forces prevail, Ataturk would be the country’s leader. Ataturk felt that, in order to boost the morale of the troops fighting this war, as well to provide the best inspirational national anthem possible for the future of the new nation—it was imperative for the young nation to have a great national anthem.

Accordingly, three of the most qualified persons in the about-to-be country were called upon to create a fitting national anthem. The music was composed by Osman Zeki Ungor, who would later be the conductor of the Presidential Symphony and the person responsible for the establishment of the State Conservatory of Turkey. The anthem’s lyrics were written by Mehmet Akif Ersoy, a poet and one of the great literary minds of his day. Edgar Manas, an Armenian-Turk, was a composer who arranged the anthem for orchestra.

The poem which was written and utilized for the anthem is quite long—41 lines of verse. Only the first 8 are ever sung:

Fear not, the crimson flag, waving in these dawns will never fade
Before the last hearth that is burning in my nation vanishes.
That is my nation’s star, it will shine;
That is mine, it belongs solely to my nation.

Oh coy crescent do not frown for I am ready to sacrifice myself for you!
Please smile upon my heroic nation, why that anger, why that rage?
If you frown, our blood shed for you will not be worthy.
Freedom is the right of my nation who worships God and seeks what is right.

All of my friends and probably most of my readers know I am married to a Turk. But that fact is only peripheral to my loving this anthem: she certainly did not propose the idea of posting it. Obviously, I have a lifelong acquaintance with the anthem now, which I would not have had without Tiraje. But, as we all know, a lifelong acquaintance with a work of music in no way qualifies it as a work worth loving.

During my shortwave listening days, it was unavoidable for me to eventually hear the national anthem of whatever station I happened to be listening to. I heard national anthems from most of the countries of the world. Over time, I’ve heard quite a number of them. Most are quite boring, four-square, hymn-like, repetitive, and triadic with a limited vocal range. Most are martial in spirit, intended to be marched to. (I do not put our own national anthem in this category, by the way. Despite its very wide vocal range requirement, it is still a well-constructed piece of music.) Some anthems make you wonder what in the world were they thinking: Greece and the Philippines come to mind. Others are interesting, verging on the beautiful—South Africa, Germany, Switzerland, France, Canada, Zambia.

Since I listened quite often to the Voice of Turkey, I would hear the national anthem at the beginning and conclusion of every broadcast. These were real moments of pleasure for me. Oscillating between a minor I and minor IV chords, and always sung by a chorus (at least in my experience), one can easily imagine this as a choral insert in a Verdi opera.

Interestingly, the imagery in the anthem’s poem refer to the flag, the human spirit, and the soil of the homeland—but there are no specifically nationalistic references—no mentions of “Turk” or “Turkey.” In this regard, the anthem could be sung and loved the world over.

I know this is a lot of talk about a piece only just over a minute long. But…what an enjoyable minute!

Pics: Turkish flag–star and crescent, composer Osman Zeki Ungor, lyricist Mehmet Akif Ersoy.

Comment

#381 B.J. THOMAS I’M SO LONESOME I COULD CRY

#381

B.J. THOMAS

I’M SO LONESOME I COULD CRY

Hank Williams, the country-western music legend, wrote “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in 1949. But I had no idea about that, and of course I had never heard his version when, in the winter of 1966—the middle of eighth grade for me—I heard B.J. Thomas sing his song. You did not have to have a lot of sophistication to appreciate Thomas’s expressive voice or to understand the heartbreak he injected into the song’s lyrics. In retrospect, it seemed like a song just waiting for him to record.

Billie Joe Thomas (b. 1942) was born and raised in Houston. While growing up there, he joined a band called The Traits and became their lead singer. At the age of 24, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” was released and became nationally a huge hit. Thomas would later have additional successes, the biggest of which was the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” which was THE song of the Paul Newman/Robert Redford movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and which won Thomas a Grammy nomination.

Thomas underwent a conversion to Christianity in the mid-1970’s, and his voice suddenly was heard all over Christian radio stations. He won Dove Awards and Grammys for Best Inspiration Performance year after year in the 1970’s. To this day, he is still one of the most popular of Christian recording artists.

When all is said and done, though—reflecting on B.J. Thomas’s entire career—I think that most people first think of this ballad—“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”—when they think of him.

*****

I am only guessing, but I think, for a lot of teenagers—maybe especially kids in their early teens—there is a real need to hear, and vicariously feel, the kind of emotion so evident in “I’m So Lonesome.” I can still hear this song as it played in my mind’s ear, walking down one of the long halls in Van Buren Junior High School. The school day was long over—I don’t know why I was still there so late in the afternoon—and I was emerging from the hall into a gloomy and overcast February day outside. Somehow, the pathos in “I’m So Lonesome” really seemed appropriate, comforting almost.

“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” has been covered dozens of times, most notably by Glen Campbell, Terry Bradshaw–the football player, who also sang and acted, had a hit with it–Carla Thomas, and jazz guitarist John Scofield–all of them very good. But the sincerity of B.J. Thomas’s version–and his haunting voice–is still the one to return to.

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry

I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry

Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves began to die?
Like me, he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry

Picture:  B.J. in his pre-clean shaven days, 1966.

Comment

#380 CHOPIN ANDANTE SPIANATO AND GRAND POLONAISE BRILLANTE, OPUS 22

#380

CHOPIN

ANDANTE SPIANATO AND GRAND POLONAISE BRILLANTE, OPUS 22

I think there are, in every classical pianist’s life, certain works—certain pieces—that—even though one knows hundreds of works—are so much FUN to play—works that somehow make your brain feel as if every cell is ALIVE—works that take you so out of yourself that you BECOME the piece you are playing—I think every pianist has at least one of these, if not several.

I suppose the truly great pianists have dozens, scores even.

I don’t know of any other work that makes me feel so alive—giving one that always-fleeting feeling that you were MEANT to play this particular work—as does Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise.

*****

Many pianists will say that something BIOLOGICAL happens to them—to their physical brains—when they play Bach. I’ve always supposed the reason for this is that when one is playing counterpoint—two or more equally important voices occurring at the same time—that the brain is somehow getting a “full” workout—as opposed to the majority of the rest of the piano repertoire which is—let’s face it, regardless of how technically difficult it may be—basically melody and accompaniment, and therefore might be using less of the brain’s capabilities. So—in my theory, anyway—an individual would literally feel physically better after playing Bach.

Whether that is true or not, the description—having a “full” brain workout as a result of playing certain pieces—seems apt for me when it comes to the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise—even though it’s not countrapuntal. It just really gets around the keyboard. I feel wonderful while playing it.

*****

The piece itself is actually a hybrid. But more about that a little later…

When Chopin moved from Warsaw to Paris at the age of 20, he knew—so well—that in order to make an impression there—on a music-loving public and on the musical cognoscenti in general—he had to have “the goods” ready to go. Consequently, he went there armed with not one, but four, concerti—the F minor concerto, the E minor concerto, the “La ci darem” Variations, and the Grand Polonaise Brillante in E-flat Major. The two concertos require an orchestra—it can be small, but it is absolutely essential for performance. The variations and the polonaise are nothing but solo piano pieces with scant orchestral accompaniments—the orchestral part is actually superfluous. Presumably, Chopin felt that having this combination of works—two works that required an orchestra and two that technically did not—covered all of his anticipated bases.

It turned out that Chopin need not have been so concerto-heavy for his first months in the big city, Paris. Just months before this—when he was still trying to decide whether it was going to be Vienna or Paris where he tried his luck as a composer–he had the opportunity to play the La ci darem Variations in Vienna, where they had been rapturously received. The reputation of the piece caught the attention of Robert Schumann, who wrote and edited an influential “new” music journal, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. He wrote an article entitled, “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” about Chopin, thus paving the way for Chopin’s eventual success in Paris.

All of this background is just to say that the Grand Polonaise Brillante in E-flat Major was—eventually—performed in Paris, with Chopin as the soloist, of course. I may have mentioned in a previous post the concerts in Paris at this time that were held by Francois Antoine Habeneck. He was a violinist and conductor who sponsored a series of highly-regarded concerts in Paris that were responsible for bringing new repertoire to the public’s attention. The Beethoven symphonies were first heard in Paris at Habeneck’s Conservatoire Concerts.

So it was that in 1834, Chopin was finally invited to perform his works on one of Habeneck’s concerts. He felt that the Grand Polonaise Brillante was just right for the occasion, but he needed something to emotionally counterbalance its fireworks with some tenderness. The Polonaise had been written in 1830. Just before the Habeneck concert was to take place, Chopin wrote the Andante Spianato to add to the Polonaise as an introduction. “Spianato” means “flowing.” This extraordinarily flowing and calm introduction is a like a Nocturne is 6/8 time. Chopin links these two pieces—two opposite poles of emotional activity—via a brief trumpet-like fanfare (heard in today’s link at 4:45), a stroke of genius.

The Polonaise is among Chopin’s most technically demanding works—rapid thirds, fast simultaneous arpeggios in both hands, extended trills, rapid octaves, and so on. It is a wonderful challenge. Did I mention how good it feels to play?

If you have seen the movie The Pianist—the Academy Award-winning movie starring Adrian Brody as a Holocaust survivor and pianist—you may remember the scene—the concluding scene—in which he plays the Grand Polonaise to a large and prestigious audience.

I’ve chosen Evgeny Kissin’s performance to link to. Kissin’s performance—as his performances always do—makes the entire work seem effortless. It probably was effortless for him.

For those interested, an excerpt of the work—in The Pianist’s final scene, featuring Adrian Brody—can also be found here:

Pics:  Chopin, Kissin, Brody.

Comment

#379 BILL WITHERS HELLO LIKE BEFORE

#379

BILL WITHERS

HELLO LIKE BEFORE

Like a lot of people, I first heard Bill Withers in the summer of 1972 when his first big hit song “Ain’t No Sunshine (When She’s Gone)” was playing–once an hour, every hour, so it seemed–all over the country. Withers had written the song when he moved from Slab Fork, West Virginia to Los Angeles, hoping for a big break in the music business. The song was kind of a homesick lament for the tight-knit qualities of his hometown where everyone knew and cared for everyone else. In Los Angeles, he was living in even more dirt-poor and much more impersonal conditions than he had back in West Virginia.

“Ain’t No Sunshine” was a tremendous success. Withers had two follow-up hits, “Lean On Me” and “Just the Two of Us”, both of which won Grammys as the Best Rhythm and Blues songs of the year. “Just the Two of Us” was also a Grammy Record of the Year.

I loved all three of these songs. Withers (b. 1938) had a way of delivering the lyrics of his songs as one who has really lived them. Slab Fork, a small coal-mining town, can hardly be found on a map of West Virginia. Born with a severe stutter, Withers grew up there. His father died when he was 13. In order to escape the misery of his childhood—as well as simply get by financially—Withers enlisted in the navy at 18. He served for nine years. And with just $250 in his pocket, he left the navy and made his way to LA, hoping—like many another aspiring artist—to make it.

When his audition tape was favorably received at Sussex Records, he refused to quit his job as a furniture assembler, not trusting the music business to offer him a successful life.

But he was definitely wrong about that. Withers not only wrote his own songs, but he wrote for other artists and performed with them as well—Gladys Knight, James Brown, Etta James, and BB King among them. Withers released a new album just about every year until the mid-1980’s. But he (rightfully) felt he was being exploited by Columbia Records (who he signed with when Sussex Records folded) and he simply left the music business in 1985.

Interestingly, Withers said that finding musical success later in life than most, at 32, he was just a regular guy who had a life before the music, so he did not feel an inherent need to keep recording once he fell out of love with the industry. He has also stated that he does not miss touring and performing live and does not regret leaving music behind. His records—and his song-writing—still continue to garner awards, however. And Withers never lost the respect accorded to him by other performing musicians.

It would feel good to link here to “Ain’t No Sunshine” or “Lean On Me.” I love those songs. But there is another Bill Withers song that did not achieve that level of notoriety, although it really should have. And that is “Hello Like Before.” Released as a track on Withers’ Making Music album, it is an example of wonderful song-writing as performing—proving the dictum that, very often, the best performer of a song-writer’s songs is the song-writer himself.

The lyrics of “Hello” are about a man who unexpectedly encounters a woman he knew intimately, and all the old feelings come rushing back. Reading the listener comments section of any of the YouTube postings of “Hello Like Before” gives an idea of the strength of attachment that many people have for “Hello.”

It is a mellow song, performed well, so meaningfully, and it just fades away…

A “hello” like before…
I’d never come here
If I’d known that you were here
I must admit though
That’s it’s nice to see you, dear
You look like you’ve been doing well

A “hello” like before
I hope we’ve grown
‘Cause we were only children then
For laughs I guess we both can say
‘I knew you when’
But then again, that’s kiss and tell

Hello like before
I guess it’s different
‘Cause we know each other now
I guess I’ve always known
We’d meet again somehow
So that it might as well be now

Hello like before
I hope we’ve grown
‘Cause we were only children then
For laughs I guess we both can say
‘I knew you when’
But then again, that’s kiss and tell

Hello like before
I guess it’s different
‘Cause we know each other now
I guess I’ve always known
We’d meet again somehow
So that it might as well be now

Pics are Bill Withers and the coal-mining town he grew up in.

Comment

#378 BERLIOZ THE DAMNATION OF FAUST

#378

BERLIOZ

THE DAMNATION OF FAUST

RAKOCZI MARCH (MARCHE HONGROISE)

CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
GEORG SOLTI, CONDUCTOR

D’AMOUR, L’ARDENTE FLAMME

JOYCE DIDONATO, MEZZO-SOPRANO
BERLIN PHILHARMONIC
SIMON RATTLE

Collegiate music students the world over are grateful for the rest of their lives for having heard so many works they had never heard—sometimes never heard OF—in their various college classes. For me, one of those works was Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust. I first heard it when various parts of it were assigned for analysis in one of my theory classes at Juilliard.

My (now) well-worn LPs of the work by Colin Davis and the London Symphony had just been released in the fall of 1973 when I was studying the work. I was strongly attracted to this work from the first time I heard it. And true to my OCD self, once I had become acquainted with it, I had to go out and purchase it—I had to own it.

*****

The Faust legend—a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for earthly pleasure—is related in Goethe’s Faust, written in 1808. The work is considered Goethe’s masterpiece—as well as the greatest work of literature in the German language. From the time of its publication onward, it captured the attention and imagination of a very literate and religious Europe in the 19th century.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) certainly fell under its inspiration. Berlioz, a composer who never—ever—thought small, wrote his Damnation of Faust in 1845. It is a work of nearly two and half hours that has confounded all those who would produce it ever since. Berlioz scored the work for an enormous orchestra, a 7-part chorus, a children’s choir, and four vocal soloists. Part opera, part oratorio, part cantata, it defies being presented successfully in any of those forms. Berlioz called it a “legend dramatique.”

The work is now most often presented as a concert work—as an oratorio.

*****

When Berlioz first read Goethe’s Faust, he was transfixed by it, reading it incessantly, at meals, while walking in the streets, everywhere and at all times. His eventual musical depiction of the work is true to the chronological unfolding of Goethe’s story.

In that story, Faust, who is an intellectual pursuing all the wisdom he can possibly obtain, has become disillusioned with life and is about to commit suicide. He hears peasants singing and dancing and realizes he will never have their kind of simple happiness. When he hears a distant army marching, and hears the soldiers’ enthusiasm for the glory of fighting—he knows this also is a joy he cannot ever relate to.

The Devil—Mephistopheles—comes to Faust just when he is going to kill himself, and offers him “the deal”—serve him eternally in hell and, in exchange, experience his deepest earthly desires until then–a deal Faust does not refuse.

Mephistopheles shows Faust a vision of a beautiful and innocent girl, Marguerite, who Faust is very desirous to meet. The Devil takes Faust to her, but in spite of his near reverence for her innocence and beauty, he seduces her and ultimately leaves her.

In the end—of course—Faust has been tricked by the Devil. He winds up suffering torments in hell, while Marguerite experiences the bliss of heaven.

*****

There are many moments of beauty and excitement in Berlioz’ Damnation. I’ve chosen two of the most popular—music that haunted me then–in my college days–as it does now.

The tune for the Rakoczi March had been popular in Hungary for generations at the time Berlioz utilized it in Damnation. Until Berlioz’ time, it was the unofficial state anthem for Hungary. A Hungarian musical friend in Vienna had sent Berlioz the Rakoczi melody, suggesting Berlioz orchestrate it. This he did, creating one—of three—purely orchestral insertions—no chorus or vocal soloists—into the Damnation score. In Damnation, this is the music of the troops marching by that Faust hears.

The Rakoczi March has become one of the most loved, and most often played, orchestral marches in the entire orchestral repertoire. Georg Solti’s recording with the Chicago Symphony is absolutely superb.

*****

One of the most moving moments of Damnation occurs in the fourth act when Marguerite, who has been seduced by Faust, laments that even though Faust has abandoned her, her love for him still burns intensely within her heart, and she is awaiting his return—which, of course, will never happen.

This aria was a favorite of the great Maria Callas, and is here sung tenderly by the expressive and beautiful Joyce DiDonato. The lyrics in English:

Loves fiery flame,
Consumes my beautiful days.
Ah! The peace of my soul
has fled forever!
His departure, his absence
Is the death of me,
And away from his presence,
Everything seems in mourning.
So my poor head
is soon driven mad,
My weak heart stops
Then ices over immediately.

I admire his strong gait,
Its carriage so graceful,
His mouth’s sweet smile
The charm of his eyes,
His enchanting voice,
He sets me ablaze,
His hand, caress,
Alas! His kiss
Of one amorous flame
consumes my days!
Ah! The peace of my soul
has fled forever!
I am at my window,
where outside, all day –
This is the view I wish to see him appear,
Or hasten his return.
My heart beats and presses
Whenever I feel he is coming.
According to my affection
I will always remember him!
O the flame caresses!
I would one day
See my soul exhale
In his kisses of love!

Comment

#377 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA #11 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 22

#377

BEETHOVEN

PIANO SONATA #11 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 22

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

Beethoven himself gave the label “grand” to any of his sonatas which were four movements in length—as opposed to the more customary three. The ebullient Opus 22 sonata is the 11th of the 32 Beethoven sonatas. It is comprised of four movements, so therefore it is “grand.” Composed in 1800, when Beethoven was thirty, it is the last of the sonatas regarded as “early” Beethoven, and is regarded by many pianists and music historians as the crowning achievement of these early sonatas. It is the last of the four movement sonatas that uses a particular format: first movement in sonata form, a second slow movement, a light-hearted minuet third movement, and a rondo fourth movement.

I learned this sonata with Ania Dorfmann in my sophomore year, long ago. Although Mme. Dorfmann had a long performing history of Beethoven—she had recorded the First Concerto with Toscanini (they were rumored to have been lovers, but who knows–I certainly never asked)—I think she would have said her real expertise was in Schumann and Mendelssohn. Nevertheless, I’ll always remember her demonstrating lengthy stretches of this Beethoven sonata, playing it only as someone who has played a piece their entire life can play. She knew ALL the Beethoven sonatas in the same way that an English literature lover would know all the Shakespeare plays.

The expressive Adagio second movement is the “heart” of Opus 22, as is true of so many Beethoven sonatas. And the finger dexterity required in the outer movements, particularly the fourth movement, is really quite impressive.

Strangely—especially in light of Beethoven’s own high opinion of this sonata, and its being the peak of the mountain for the early sonatas—I do not think this sonata gets played enough. At least I don’t hear it that much. Which makes me feel that much luckier to have yet another Richard Goode interpretation of the work so readily available on YouTube.

I hope you will enjoy the B-flat Major sonata. If you’ve made it thus far in our listening to all the Beethoven sonatas, this should feel like both a landmark and a (temporary) resting place to you.

1st movt:

2nd movt:

3rd movt:

4th movt:

Comment

#376 OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN A LITTLE MORE LOVE

#376

OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN

A LITTLE MORE LOVE

I was 25 years old when I became interested in—which, as you know, for me means obsessed with—jogging. I started by running around the track at the University of Cincinnati, where I was a student. At the outset, it was just a couple of miles a day. But by the early 1980’s, when Tiraje and I (and little Jason) had moved to Dayton, it was more like 5-10 miles a day, and of course every day. It took a long time for my jogging gene to fade away. Now, in my old age, I think I’m doing great to stay on the treadmill for 30 minutes at a pace that just barely qualifies as jogging.

There IS an Olivia Newton-John tie-in here…

I had liked—not loved, but liked—Olivia Newton-John since she broke onto the scene in 1974. Her innocent, vibratoless soprano struck me as being a bit phlegmatic, but not objectionable. “I Honestly Love You” had been her first number one hit in the U.S., which was followed by an impressive number of consecutive chart-topping songs: Have You Never Been Mellow, Please Mr. Please, Something Better to Do, Let It Shine, Don’t Stop Believin’, Sam, Hopelessly Devoted To You—and then, with the success of the movie Grease featuring herself and John Travolta, You’re The One I Want and Summer Nights.

Newton-John is British, having been born in 1948 in Cambridge. Her family moved to Australia in the mid-1950’s for her father’s work, who was a professor. She had been performing since childhood, and while growing up had taken the initiative to form girl groups and folk-rock duos. Upon winning a singing contest—the prize of which was a trip to Britain—she moved back to the U.K. while still a teenager.

She released her first album in 1971, and followed that up by participating in the Eurovision contest, finishing just behind ABBA. Her career was definitely not going straight up, though, and her musical style fluctuated for a while between pop and country. With her release of “Let Me Be There” in 1974, she won the Grammy and the Country Music Association award for Female Vocalist of the Year—which ruffled some feathers in Nashville, where favorites such as Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Tanya Tucker were all overlooked.

All of this ONJ activity was only in my peripheral vision, though. Although I found Newton-John’s singing pleasant—as I said, completely non-objectionable—I also did not find it magnetic or compelling. When I read, in the fall of 1981 that she had, with her release of the albums Totally Hot and Physical, purposefully set out to change her good-girl image, I thought I would give her a try by purchasing my first ONJ albums.

On a blindingly sunny Sunday afternoon in January of 1982–here is the jogging tie-in–running in snow drifts all over Kettering, I listened on my Walkman for the first time to these two albums (on cassettes—remember them?). I was pretty impressed. Her voice hadn’t changed, of course, just the material—which showed her to have much more vocal versatility than the simple stand-up singer I had categorized her as.

When I first heard “A Little More Love”, I thought the stratospheric high harmonies were a result of made-in-the-studio over-dubbing—a la ABBA or Karen Carpenter. It turns out that she simply had some outstanding backup singers—and some musicians who were more in line with this style than, say, the collaborators in all her previous songs had been. “A Little More Love” has been in my short list (well, not so short, actually) of “absolute favorite” pop songs for a long time.

If you’re an Olivia fan, you already know this song. If not, I think you’ll also be impressed. She made, I believe, three made-for-TV videos of this song, complete with unnecessary head-tossing and sultry looks. I’m linking to one of those videos here. It’s the music that counts for me.

Olivia Newton-John’s personal life has not been that happy. She and her first husband had divorced, and her long-time significant other, Patrick McDermott, was literally lost at sea and presumed dead. Olivia has been dealing, off and on, with cancer for many years, and has struggled to put her daughter’s life, who suffered from extreme anorexia, in order.

Throughout all these well-publicized events, though, her career has been continuing. ONJ still tours and records. To me, her life in the limelight in somewhat reminiscent of that of Judy Garland’s. Never a moment’s peace, but not wanting it any other way.

Comment

#375 RODRIGO CONCIERTO DE ARANJUEZ

#375

RODRIGO

CONCIERTO DE ARANJUEZ

2ND MOVEMENT – ADAGIO

JOHN WILLIAMS, GUITAR
BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
PAUL DANIEL, CONDUCTOR

Pictures:  Rodrigo, Victoria Kahmi, the Gardens of the Palace of Aranjuez.

I think it is probably safe to say that the Rodrigo guitar concerto—the Concierto de Aranjuez—is the most beloved guitar work ever written. I know that is saying a lot, but the widespread appeal of this concerto—and particularly its second movement—goes well beyond guitar aficionados to a much wider general audience.

Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) had an interesting, and inspiring, life story. Born in Valencia, Spain in 1901, he lost his sight to diphtheria at the age of three and was totally blind for the rest of his life. In his childhood and adolescence, he was taught how to play violin, piano, and guitar by rote, and learned music theory and composition by Braille. All of his subsequent compositions were written in Braille and then transcribed for publication.

Rodrigo’s lack of sight did not deter him from living a full and musical life. He studied piano and composition with Paul Dukas in Paris, as well as musicology under Andre Pirro. His published compositions date from 1923 when he was just 22 years old. Twenty years later, he was awarded Spain’s National Prize for Orchestra for his “Cinco piezas infantiles.” He taught at the prestigious (and enormous, with 86,000 students) Complutense University of Madrid from the 1940’s until his death. In 1983, Rodrigo was awarded Spain’s highest award for composition, the Premio Nacional de Musica. He was raised to the nobility by King Juan Carlos in 1991, and given the title of “Marques de los Jardines de Aranjuez”—Marquis of the Gardens of Aranjuez.

Aranjuez was a town in central Spain, south of Madrid. Rodrigo’s most famous work, the Concierto de Aranjuez, takes its inspiration—according to the composer—from the sounds of nature and the evocation of 16th century Spain associated with the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, built by Phillip II.

The bereft intensity of sadness heard in the Adagio movement is without doubt why this work is one of the best known in all of 20th century art music. The actual circumstances of this work’s creation did not come out until many years after its composition, eventually told by his wife. While a student in Paris, Rodrigo had fallen in love with a Turkish pianist, Victoria Kamhi. They had met in 1929 and were married in 1933. Kahmi was a promising pianist, but she gave up her career and her musical life in order to facilitate his. The couple’s first pregnancy, in 1937, ended in a miscarriage. Rodrigo was racked with grief and pain at this loss, feelings that could only come out in this second movement. This association—his mourning for a lost child and this movement of the concerto—is not just conjecture. It certainly underscores the personal meditation on loss one hears in this music.

Rodrigo was a fine pianist, but he did not play the guitar. Nevertheless, he still manages, in his guitar music, to capture the role of the guitar in the Spanish psyche. As you will hear from the very beginning of the work, this Adagio movement also features the English horn as a solo instrument. These two instruments have a dialogue of sadness at the outset of the work—perhaps the English horn is Victoria, the guitar Joaquin?

*****

Live performances of the work, as you can imagine, are problematic. Since the classical guitar, even in the hands of a master, can only project so far into a large hall, the balance between soloist and orchestra is very delicate. I’m not sure whether all solo guitarists in this concerto customarily use amplification. I’ve heard it both ways. Tiraje and I heard the great Pepe Romero perform the concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony some years ago, and he did not use amplification. We were not sitting that far away—maybe the tenth row, on the orchestra level—and yet his sound did not always carry. In many live recordings, such as can be heard on YouTube, the guitarist is being helped by amplification—which is preferable, I think. This particular clip—featuring a guitarist I’ve loved my whole life, John Williams—seems to have taken place in the humongous Royal Albert Hall in London, in which case amplification for the guitar would absolutely have been necessary.

If you have not heard this work before, I would strongly suggest savoring it. Wait until you have the time—10 minutes or so—to really hear it out.

ADAGIO MOVEMENT – JOHN WILLIAMS, GUITAR

And, I would be remiss if I did not also mention that the outer movements are a joy to hear as well—lively and ever so Spanish. For that pleasure, you may want to listen to Pepe Romero with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting:

COMPLETE CONCERTO – PEPE ROMERO, GUITAR

Comment